NEW ORLEANS – Just a week after residents began returning to the city's Algiers neighborhood, a parochial school there reopened Monday for the first time since Hurricane Katrina (search) struck, and its principal told pupils their school is "a place you can call home now."
As St. Andrew the Apostle Elementary School sprang back to life, Sybil Skansi reminded the teachers about handing in attendance sheets, while the students — some who have attended there before, and some who were displaceder, she had some mixed news: The cafeteria was open, but the freezer wasn't working yet.
Still, she told students that if they hadn't been able to bring a bag lunch, they'd find a way to get them something to eat.
"This is a family. This is a place you can call home now," Skansi said.
It was the only Catholic school in Orleans Parish (search) to reopen Monday, though archdiocese officials said schools elsewhere in the archdiocese also were reopening. City public schools remain closed, but officials are developing a plan to reopen some by November, subject to environmental, health and safety concerns.
A week earlier, Mayor Ray Nagin (search) had welcomed residents back to the Algiers neighborhood but imposed a curfew and warned of limited services. Algiers, a neighborhood of 57,000 people, lies across the Mississippi River from the main part of New Orleans and largely escaped flooding from Hurricane Katrina and Rita.
At St. Andrew, Katie Branum said, "It's great. I love New Orleans most of the time."
She and her family first fled to Houston, then later ended up in Gulf Breeze, Fla., where she attended public school until they were able to return home. She was more worried than scared during the storm, she said, but what really got to her was watching images on the TV of the flooding and the looters.
"The looters made me really mad," she said. "I just wanted the Army and the National Guard and everyone who was here to get the looters out."
The day before marked another first: the first Sunday Mass to be celebrated at the city's historic St. Louis Cathedral. Emergency workers and soldiers — many of them out-of-towners — mixed with newly returning residents.
Archbishop Alfred C. Hughes spoke of the more than 900 people who perished and offered hope for those who remain to rebuild the region — forging a community, he hoped, with a stronger moral thread and better race relations.
"This is indeed an historic moment in the life — not only in the church of New Orleans but in the whole city," Hughes said. "The structure which harbors the soul of our city has come back to life."
Some churchgoers shed tears during the service, as the choir and congregation sang hymns about finding shelter in a storm and getting through dark times. The communion hymn contained the lyrics "I am hope for all who are hopeless ... I will bring you home."
"I cried just when thoughts came to me of all the things people are going through," said Michelle Hernandez, 27, of Jefferson Parish, who attended the service with her husband and two children.
The church, on Jackson Square in the French Quarter, was bright, as light shining down from the balcony made the altar's gold accents glitter. One man, standing in the back of the church, said to himself as if in prayer: "Welcome back, New Orleans."
Some parishioners offered a touch of humor, with one wearing a T-shirt that read: "I gave! The house, the car, the job ... Hurricane Katrina."
The cathedral was originally built in 1727. The first Church of St. Louis lasted 61 years, until it was destroyed by fire. The triple-spired cathedral was rebuilt on the same location. Since then, it has withstood hurricanes and hailstorms.
Electricity had been restored to about 29 percent of New Orleans customers and about 98 percent of Jefferson Parish customers, said Chanel Lagarde, a spokesman for Entergy Corp.
As of Friday, the state reported 932 deaths in Louisiana from Hurricane Katrina. Mississippi's death toll was 221.