St. Paul's School: A Great Place to Grow
by Stacey Rase
It was the first cold snap of early fall, and the 700-plus students of St. Paul’s School in Covington were congregated in the gymnasium for the school’s biweekly principal’s assembly. A folksy song played over the loudspeaker, echoing throughout the room. Banners of sports championships proudly hung from the ceiling over a sea of young men clad in colors of blue and gold. When the music ended, St. Paul’s principal, Brother Raymond Bulliard, called the assembly to order and acknowledged the change in weather that had happened overnight. “It reminds us that you can’t stop time. It’s always marching on,” he commented. “But you do have a choice as to how you use that time.”
In the center of the gathering was a line of young men who would spend the next eight months of their time at St. Paul’s serving the school; they would that morning be sworn in as the newest officers of the Student Council. But before their oath would be taken, Brother Ray would remind them of their primary duty to follow in the footsteps of the school’s founders: the Christian Brothers, whose religious order was started over three centuries ago by Saint John Baptist de La Salle. Their vows would speak of service to the community, a dedication to high moral standards and a strong commitment to strive for academic excellence. It was a message that the students had heard many times before and would hear many times again. It is a principle that St. Paul’s graduates will tell you they take with them throughout their lives beyond the Catholic school’s campus. The history of St. Paul’s School is that deeply rooted.
Its history is also well documented, thanks in great part to Brother Ephrem Hebert, FSC, a former principal. He compiled The St. Paul Story, a book that focuses on the history of the school from 1918, when the seemingly unknown Christian Brothers took over the school from the Benedictines, to 1968, the school’s Golden Jubilee year as a Lasallian school. St. Paul’s history will also forever live on in the hearts of those who attended school there; the alumni are always willing to share a memory or relay a story from their days spent on the Covington campus.
The Dixon Days
The date commonly recognized as the definitive, and thus celebrated, beginning of St. Paul’s is July 1911, when the Benedictines of Saint Joseph Abbey purchased Dixon Academy in Covington and renamed it Saint Paul’s College. Previously, the school’s halls had been occupied for years by the students of Dixon Academy. Dixon was founded in 1900 by W.A. Dixon of New Orleans to prepare students for future study at Tulane University. (He was the son of Dr. Von Blarcom Dixon, the first and only president of H. Sophie Newcomb College for Women.)
Dixon recruited in the St. Tammany Farmer newspaper, stating tuition of $5-$15 per term, depending on the student’s grade level. That first year, 99 pupils attended classes in the institution’s only building, Dixon Hall. A few years later, the school would erect a gymnasium—an octagonal-shaped brick building that still stands today and is used as St. Paul’s theatre—and an adjoining indoor swimming pool that was fed by fresh artesian water. Dixon Academy enjoyed many good years, but its numbers dwindled, and it was forced to close in March 1909. Professor Dixon began looking for a buyer for his nine parcels of land and its improvements.
St. Paul’s is Born
The Dominicans, who hoped to use the location as their missionary novitiate, were the first to show interest in the property. This was prevented by Archbishop Blenk, however, as he was convinced by the Benedictines of Covington’s St. Joseph Preparatory Seminary that it would be unwise to have two religious orders operating in such close proximity. Instead, in July 1911, the Benedictines purchased Dixon Academy and renamed it “St. Paul’s College” in honor of the patron of the abbot of the St. Joseph monastery.
St. Paul’s College’s first school year began in September 1911, with nearly 80 boarders and 30 day students. Later that term, a new dormitory was constructed—a three-story structure that attracted even more young men to the campus. The student population swelled as St. Paul’s became known throughout South Louisiana for its excellence in academics. The Benedictines offered five different courses of study during the days of the original college: Preparatory, Commercial, Stenographic, Academic and Classical. Each of these courses would last three years. Classes were very small, sometimes only two or three students, and much was expected of the young men.
Recently, Covington resident Cindy Hood discovered her grandfather’s diary, which chronicled his days as a student during those early years. On the cover of the red 6-inch-by-8-inch notebook is written, “Property of Tom W. Kent, ST. PAUL’S COLLEGE, COVINGTON, LA., Snap-Shots.” The worn yellowing pages within offer a unique look at the school during Kent’s time there from 1915 to 1917. Under a photo of the main school building is written, “The place for study and study only.” Beneath a picture of the original gymnasium, Kent wrote, “Where many happy hours are spent.” He gave nicknames to the sports teams of St. Paul’s: the track team was known as “The Fast Bunch” and the baseball team was termed “The boys that put it over the fence.” Headshots of his dapper-looking classmates are glued to the pages in the back of the book, identified by nicknames such as Buck, Tall Boy, Dimples, Fattie and Buzzard.
Cindy feels fortunate to have found the diary in her mother’s attic, as she didn’t know much about her grandfather’s college days. She was eager to share the book so that those in the northshore community could get a sense of life back then. Some things have not changed much. A campus photo displays tall pines outlining the same field the students use today for sports practice. Other aspects have changed immensely, as evidenced by photos of chino-and-necktie-clad tennis club members holding wooden rackets and snapshots of the school’s antiquated typewriting room and laboratory. An aerial station is pictured, which Kent says was “where the boys received their messages from abroad.” This was, presumably, the school’s ham radio station that Brother Ephrem notes in his book. With the call letters 5EQ, the station, housed in the attic of the main school building, was used in a course in wireless telegraphy and to send and receive messages during World War I.
The Christian Brothers—All Things to All Men
The school year commencing in 1918 would be the last under the direction of the Benedictines, as it was decided that all of the order’s efforts should be concentrated on the building up of the diocesan seminary at St. Joseph Abbey. The school was sold to the Christian Brothers, a Catholic religious order then unknown in the region. Karen Hebert, St. Paul’s public relations director and chair of the English department, recounts the brothers’ circuitous path to Covington. “The brothers left France in the early 1900s in a voluntary religious exile. They went to Mexico and started a school there, but were eventually pushed out when the government said they couldn’t have a religious school,” she explains. After relocating in upstate New York, they received word in 1918 from St. Joseph’s abbot about the opportunity to purchase St. Paul’s. “It was perfect for them. The school was already built, although they had to do major work on the structures once they got here.”
It is written that hardly anyone in the community expected the school to survive after it was purchased by the Christian Brothers. But those original 19 men were a determined bunch. When they found the school facilities in poor condition upon their arrival, they worked up to twelve hours a day putting their own sweat into its repair. Money was meager, at best, and even food was in short supply. But they made do with what the Benedictines had left in the school pantry, or they traveled into town by way of Louisiana Avenue (later named Jahncke Avenue) to find food on Columbia and Boston streets. When they opened their doors in the fall of 1918 and found that most all of the students had chosen not to return, they traveled throughout the state, door to door, to meet with families to recruit students and promote their mission. In his book, Brother Ephrem describes the founders as “carpenters, painters, plumbers, electricians, bricklayers, as well as janitors and yardmen.” They truly became, in the words of Paul, “all things to all men.”
The St. Paul community has long taken cues from the early founders in maintaining a fine campus. Beautification of the school grounds has always been a priority, as has caring for the school buildings to preserve their long history. The classroom buildings used today are the result of a major expansion program undertaken by director Brother August Faure and completed under the direction of Brother Cassian Lange in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Dixon Hall was renovated and used as the school’s dormitory. Other dorms would later be added: Benilde Hall in 1960 and La Salle Hall in 1963. The school discontinued its boarder program in the early 1990s, and old dorm rooms are now used as classrooms. Almost every other structure used today was constructed during the term of director Brother Francis Beck in the early 1960s. He developed a long-term plan for the school and oversaw the building of the brothers’ residence hall, the school chapel, an Olympic-size swimming pool, dining room and kitchen facilities, the administration building and the football stadium that the Wolf Pack calls home.
Landmarks such as the gymnasiums—old and new— bring back fond memories for alumni. “There were always bats in the old gym, and they would fly around during basketball practice,” laughs 1952 graduate Don Boudreaux. “And I can remember when Brother Alex, our senior prefect, built the new gym. I never got to play in there as a student, as it opened after I left, but as a boarder I helped to build it. Everyone pitched in. And much of the material was donated. Brother Alex built that big gym for only $40,000.”
As mentioned, the school’s first swimming pool was indoors and fed by an artesian well. After the well’s water source was cut off, the boys went without a pool and would instead swim in the Bogue Falaya. But a drowning incident in May 1945 precipitated the building of a new pool, which was constructed next to the dormitory. This pool would be replaced in 1963 by the pool used today.
The school’s entry arch is another structure that has seen changes. The first arch was dedicated to the college by the classes of 1929 and 1930, which raised the money to pay for the project. That archway remained until 1962, when increased traffic in and out of the campus necessitated a widening of the road. The arch was demolished, to be rebuilt years later.
Emphasis on Education
Just as it worked diligently to maintain an excellent campus, the administration spent considerable effort building up St. Paul’s reputation in academics. The Christian Brothers never had patience with mediocrity from either the students or the faculty. Ernest Prieto, of Mandeville, a graduate in 1953, started at St. Paul’s in sixth grade and recalls how seriously the brothers considered grades. “Back in those days, we would get report cards every six weeks. All the students would meet in the gym, grammar students sitting on one side of the room and upper grades on the other. The brothers would read off names and grades, starting with the lowest grades first,” Prieto recounts. “If you failed, you had to line up on the left. If you passed, you lined up on the right. It was very embarrassing!” Boarding students who passed all of their subjects were put on a bus and sent home to spend time with their families. Those who failed were forced to remain on campus until the next grading period.
This practice did not last long—many students failed their courses on purpose when it became known that those kept behind were spending their time off hiking, swimming in the Bogue Falaya River and eating more than their fair share of rations in the cafeteria. Adequate food was quite a problem at the school during war years. Prieto adds, “Those guys who had to ‘go to the left’ every term weren’t dumb. In fact, I think a few of them ended up being the first millionaires in our class!”
The brothers’ emphasis on good grades never did leave Prieto. Over the years, he has kept in touch with many of his past teachers, including Brother Luke and Brother Regis. Prieto visited them in Santa Fe, N.M., and took that opportunity to settle an old score in the grade books. “I brought one of my old report cards to them. It had the letter grade ‘F’ listed in chemistry, but the number grade was written in as a 72. That should have been a ‘D,’” he insists. “I asked them to change my grade, and they did!”
Ask most any graduate to describe his teachers at St. Paul’s and he will usually start with a funny story. Derek Barfield, a 1993 grad, is one such example. “Brother Bill Parsons was the most brilliant individual—with the most advanced vocabulary—I’d ever heard,” he tells. “We would pick one word out of the dictionary every morning and try to stump him with the definition. Not only would he get it right every time, he would even give the etymology and correct spelling of that word. We could never get him!”
The Wolf Pack
Graduates’ memories of participating in St. Paul’s athletics are often just as vivid. The school’s tradition of excellence in athletics can be traced back to the time of the Benedictines, who considered sports necessary and part of their overall education. One of the college’s original three founders, Father Adelbert Svrcek, is given credit for establishing the school as an athletic powerhouse. It was during his tenure as athletic coach that the school’s first quarter-mile cinder track was built, at a time when there were fewer than a dozen tracks in the entire state. The track brought visitors from near and far and is said to have put Covington on the map in the athletic community.
St. Paul’s was known as a formidable competitor in both track and basketball for many years. The school joined the Riverside League in 1939 and just one year later captured the title at the annual track meet at City Park Stadium in New Orleans—a coup, considering there were only six men on the team. Prieto and Boudreaux were both members of the 1952 basketball team that won third place in the state tournament. “And we only had 28 seniors in our graduating class. Can you believe that?” remarks Boudreaux. They were both named to the first team of the All State Team that year and were later inducted into the school’s Athletic Hall of Fame.
The football program has also long been a big part of the St. Paul’s experience. The Wolves first played Covington High School in 1935. They won that game, 19 to 7, and a rivalry was born. Today, the school enjoys competition in over a dozen different sports, spanning a variety of interests from wrestling and bowling to lacrosse and power lifting.
Keeping the Memories Alive
It is undoubtedly the spirit of the 19 Christian Brothers founders that continues to drive St. Paul’s today. The brothers are honored at Founders’ Circle on campus, and an annual award is given to the teacher of the year in the name of Brother Charles, one of the longest-living founders. Many of the school’s lasting traditions give tribute as well, such as the annual March through the Arch, a ceremonial walk that each senior class takes beneath the arch that leads onto the school grounds. “It’s a ceremony that ties them all together,” says Hebert. “It connects them to every Christian Brother who has gone before them.”
The founders’ memories live on more specifically in the hearts of the school’s graduates. Recognizing alumni has long been an important practice at St. Paul’s—the first Alumni Association was formally inaugurated on May 15, 1921, with 22 members present at its first gathering. The organization, which numbers over 5,400 strong today, is led by Jimmy Dykes, a 1961 graduate. “My job is to keep them all connected. They are the lifeline of this school to our community,” he says.
His job is aided by the alums’ passion for their alma mater. When the school congregated for the principal’s assembly on that chilly morning in November, it was just following a busy weekend filled with homecoming activities. Thousands of alumni had descended on the school’s campus for the football game. Brother Ray relayed to the students his experiences visiting with those alumni just days before. “I can’t tell you how many of those guys came up to me to say how much they missed St. Paul’s. They told me they wished they were back here as students. It meant so much to me to hear that this place is home to so many. Homecoming may be over for now, but that sense of family never ends.”