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Mater Dolorosa Catholic School

founded in 1921



Picture taken in 1960's

                                                             Picture taken in 2011                                                             

our history…

Imagine the school setting a hundred years ago in Independence, LA. Back then, no church, rectory, convent, or school existed. The Catholic Church had a limited presence in Independence until Italian immigrant families arrived in Central Tangipahoa Parish. The Italian immigrants arrived in large numbers and joined local farmers and lumbermen who had settled in the area several decades before.  All of these hard-working people carried with them a conviction in their Catholic faith which had been a cherished part of their lives for countless centuries.  The parish was officially founded by Fr. Columban Wenzel, a benediction, around the turn of the century.  The first pastor , Fr. Placido Gabrielli, arrived in 1908.  Fr. Gabrielli faced incredible challenges.  One of the largest challenges was the absence of a church.  The original wooden church had been destroyed by the famous hurricane of 1907.  Despite these difficulties, the parish flourished, and by the early 1920s, the need for a Catholic school in the community had become apparent.  The great Dominican order had assumed the shepherd's staff for the flock of Mater Dolorosa by this time, and were leading the parish in the proper direction.

In the spring of 1921, a Spanish Dominican Fr. John Ayuela was pastor of Mater Dolorosa .  Father Ayuela contracted with the Dominican Sisters of St. Mary's in New Orleans to start a school in the spring of 1921. Sister Mary deRicci Hutchinson, the prioress of St. Mary's, sent Sister Mary Margaret Sustendal, O.P. to Independence to “find out what was needed.” Sister Mary Margaret came, looked, and reported tersely, "EVERYTHING!”  The sisters, on their arrival, found a house and three beds.  Joining Sister Mary Margaret on the educational mission were Sister Mary Albert Sporl, cook and housekeeper, Sister Mary Sebastian, a young sister in failing health, and Sister Mary Berchmans Shanks who shared the teaching duties with Sister Mary Margaret.  The sisters were to be paid $30 a month and held the privilege of selling school books, stationary and first communion supplies to the pupils.

The sisters worked hard and by July the school was ready for opening. Note that school started in July then, so that the term could be completed very early in the spring, allowing the children to work in the many strawberry fields in the area. The school was properly dedicated and named St. Dominic's in honor of the great founder of the Dominican order. The school officially commenced on Sister Mary Margaret's birthday, July 11, 1921. The school's future was entrusted to Father John and his assistant pastor Father Joaquin Fortea's special care.  That early school house, which stood where today's Family Life Center (Convent) is located, certainly did not resemble today's building.  Parish records describe the school this way: it was intended to be two raised rooms above a “basement.” While it is difficult to comprehend a basement in the damp South Louisiana climate, one was apparently constructed. For the first term, the two schoolrooms were sitting on the ground, and not for another month did the basement come into existence.

The school began with the attendance of 240 boys and girls enrolled in grades one through four--the only classes offered. Two of the school's earliest pupils were Frances and Felecie Anzalone. Only the teacher had a desk because the pupils' desks had yet to arrive. Sister Mary Margaret taught 3rd and 4th grades in the front room, and Sister Margaret Berchmans taught the primer, first and second grades in the other room. The large attendance necessitated enlarging the school immediately. Classes were then held in the church while construction was going on. When the school was finished, the first lay teacher, Miss Mona Fox of New Orleans, was hired to teach the primer grades. Countless excellent lay teachers have since served the school extremely well and continue to do so today.

However, the school would face difficulties in the coming years. The Great Depression, which affected the entire world, left its imprint here.  Scarce funds were not available to fill even the basic needs. About 1933, the convent became dilapidated. Father Fueye had no funds to repair the convent. The sisters agreed to find the money to make the necessary repairs with the promise that the parish would eventually pay them back. Father Fueye wrote to the archbishop on September 5, 1933, about the lack of respect for the school in these poor times. As was the custom in Tangipahoa Parish, the school opened in July and closed in early spring so the children could pick strawberries. Somehow, the school survived the dark days of the Great Depression and continued to serve the important need for Catholic Education in the area. In 1937, severe drainage problems forced the sisters to leave temporarily and go back “to the city,” apparently New Orleans. The school had to be closed in 1940 because of heavy ice. 


The New Cucchiara Catholic Center

The years following World War II were prosperous, and by the late 1940s, the obvious need to replace the old school had become a paramount concern. Beginning in 1943, the acquisition of land where the school now sits was started. The City of Independence assisted in the move to build the new school by agreeing to close a street crossing the plot of land. Thus, the way was cleared for the new school, and construction began in 1948. The Cucchiara Center, which served functions, including the gymnasium, was dedicated in June 1948. 











Construction of The new school

The new school was constructed for $78,000 and formally dedicated on December 10, 1949.  The ceremonies were most impressive, with the memorable Bishop Joseph Francis Rummel leading the elaborate rituals.  At this time, the school was renamed to more adequately reflect its special “place” in the community. The school would henceforth be known as Mater Dolorosa Elementary School, identifying the educational plant more closely with the church parish.  Throughout the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, the school continued to grow and prosper. 

For 100 years, Mater Dolorosa Catholic School has been at the heart of the Catholic community in Independence, LA. The festivities have attracted students, alumni, teachers, former principals, faculty members, and parishioners from a number of different Catholic communities in Tangipahoa parish. From these beloved classrooms have come several generations of young scholars prepared for whatever challenges the world has held for them.

In the 1970s, the founders of a new venture, the annual Little Italy Festival, began to be identified with Mater Dolorosa School. As it is now more properly named, the INDEPENDENCE ITALIAN FESTIVAL had its origins on Main Street near the Kluchin Building. It grew so rapidly that a new location was necessary. The school grounds seemed the logical place, and thus the festival was moved.

Indeed, the founders of the festival, members of the Italian-American Cultural Association, played a large role in the construction of a new gymnasium. The Church gave a most generous gift to start the construction of a new gym. The beautiful new gymnasium was constructed through the generosity of many parishioners of the community, under the leadership of then Pastor Isidore Vicenti, O.P., in a dedication ceremony on January 15, 1994. The gymnasium filled an obvious need in the school's facility and continues to serve the school and the parish today. 

For over five decades, the school has blossomed under the dedicated direction of the good Dominican Sisters of St. Mary, who came here so many years ago to pioneer Catholic education in the region. Mater Dolorosa has continued to flourish, even though the beloved sisters are no longer a presence.  Dedicated “lay” principals and teachers are continuing a tradition as old as the school. They continue to give leadership to Catholic education in the Independence area. Since the last sisters left, lay principals have guided the school until the present.    

This school is a lasting monument to the Catholic people and all Christians in this community.  Since its inception, the Catholics of this area have demonstrated a willingness to sacrifice their time, talent, and resources to ensure the continuous availability of Catholic education.  Through the collective efforts of parents, individuals, priests, sisters, and teachers, the community has steadfastly supported the belief that everyone should have the option of providing their children with a Catholic education.

Mater Dolorosa Catholic School stands as a profound testament of the generosity of the people of Central Tangipahoa Parish, who have placed a premium on Catholic education.  Today, and every day, we commemorate the rich history of Mater Dolorosa Catholic School. With the ongoing grace of God's, it is our hope that the current students enrolled in the school will one day stand here to celebrate the school's significant milestones in the unforeseeable future.



Celebrating 100 Years of Catholic Education

Be it known to all who enter here that CHRIST is the reason for this school.

He is the unseen but ever-present teacher in its classes.

He is the model of its faculty and the inspiration of its students.