On November 22, 2012, New Orleans legend, Barbara Elise Cerniglia, passed away after suffering from Alzheimer's, leaving behind a legacy of selflessness and compassion that spanned five decades and extended over three continents. Her efforts on behalf of countless refugees, immigrants, homeless, poor and disadvantaged will never be forgotten.
Elise worked for more than four decades helping Cubans, Vietnamese, and many other immigrants in need. She resettled over 20,000 Cubans and more than 40,000 Vietnamese and was instrumental in the creation of Catholic Charities Immigration and Refugee Services, the El Yo-Yo Bilingual Readiness Program and Child Care Center, and helped numerous refugees obtain their collegiate degrees and begin businesses. Her last efforts were to aid immigrants with legal representation.
"La Senora Elisa", as she was fondly called by the New Orleans Hispanic community, was born on August 5, 1922, in New Orleans. Although she was born in New Orleans, she grew up in Cuba where her father was the lead chemical engineer at a sugar cane plantation in Espana Central, Matanzas, Cuba. Years later she moved back to New Orleans.
When Castro came to power in Cuba, a deluge of refugees found their way to New Orleans. Most arrived with only the clothes on their backs. They had no money, no place to stay, no jobs.
She found them clothes, places to live, and work. Word spread, and before long, Elise was receiving calls from other Cubans. Elise started collecting clothes, food, and other items in her home, and working with Senator Ellender for visa waivers for those Cubans trapped in Cuba.
The project soon grew too big for her house, so Elise rented space on Broad Street, and called it the Catholic Cuban Relief Center. She found jobs, homes to rent, and helped many go back to school. More and more Cubans came to New Orleans, often showing up with her phone number on a slip of paper. Then, with the help of Archbishop Hannan, she set up the Catholic Charities Immigration and Refugee Services that is functioning to this day.
Because so many Cuban children couldn't speak English, she started a bilingual pre-school, and called it the El Yo-Yo Bi-lingual Readiness Program and Child Care Center. She went to Washington and procured federal funds for this program. The school was so successful that it became the model for other school systems, and student teachers and observers started showing up, taking notes. Bilingual education was brought to New Orleans.
After the Vietnam War, the United States of America brought hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese refugees and put them in camps, hoping they would be adopted by families across America. Elise called them up and said that she would take as many as they could send her. At first, they objected, but later agreed for the Catholic Charities Immigration and Refugee Service to sponsor as many as they could take. She firmly believed that, like the Cubans, they should keep their culture and help each other.
Many Vietnamese would come to the New Orleans area, from other cities where they had been resettled, because they wanted to live among their own. Many found work on fish, shrimp, and oyster boats and eventually went on the buy their own boats. Through donations and a lot of hard work, Elise was eventually able to resettle an estimated 40,000 to 60,000 Vietnamese refugees in the New Orleans area, where they, like the Cubans, became an integral part of the multi-cultural fabric of the New Orleans area.
Later, she went to work at Catholic Charities processing and working with immigrants from countries like Honduras, Costa Rica, San Salvador, and many others. Elise taught herself immigration law, and became a certified legal representative that allowed her to represent immigrants in court. With the title "amicus curiae" she prepared and presented cases before federal judges.
Despite a diagnosis of macular degeneration, and even during her years of waning eyesight, she continued helping immigrants and refugees. Elise continued working, helping people, until she was 80 years old and was diagnosed with Alzheimer's. During her lifetime, she received numerous awards, medals, and citations, including the Order of St. Louis IX Award, papal recognition from Pope Pius XII and Pope John Paul II. Elise's legacy lives on in the countless lives that she has touched.
Barbara Elise Cerniglia was born on August 5, 1922 to William J Williams, native of Williams, PA and Lillian Johness, native of Lafourche Parish, LA. She was preceded in death by her parents, and siblings: James A Williams, Phyllis N Levy, and her twin brother, William A Williams. Also preceding her were her first husband, Lt. Norman F Randolph, USNR who died in service to his country during the Pacific action of World War II, a daughter, Phyllis Randolph and her second husband, Dr. Albert Salvatore Cerniglia, a well known and respected physician of New Orleans.
She is survived by her children: Phyllis Edwards of Amite, LA, James A. Cerniglia of Accokeek, MD, Timothy W. Cerniglia of Metairie, LA, Mrs. Barbara A. Smith of Mandeville, LA, Arthur T Cerniglia of Kenner, LA and Lillian "Mimi" Higgins of Cape Girardeau, MO. She is also survived by 17 grandchildren and 7 great-grandchildren, as well as the countless refugees whose lives she touched. All will sorely miss her courage, wisdom and generosity.
Visitation will be held at Jacob Schoen & Son Funeral Home on Canal Street from 6:00 to 9:00 pm the evening of Tuesday, November 27, 2012. The funeral mass will be held at noon, Wednesday, November 28th at Holy Name of Jesus Church on St. Charles Ave.
In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the Alzeimer's Foundation or Catholic Charities Immigration Services. Condolences may be expressed online at www.schoencanalstreet.com