On a typical school day, you might see Ralph Howe seated with his guitar at the front of a group of one-year-olds as they grin and clap their tiny hands or dance on the carpet. You’d see him preaching to elementary students and their parents, asking them questions about the Bible and speaking with wide, encouraging eyes. Howe has spent days leading classes of high school students, too, motivating them to write and think about God and their world amidst all of their adolescent distractions. Through it all, “Father Ralph” as many call him, has brought patience, a relentless sense of humor, a warm smile, and a commitment to spreading God’s love. Howe is retiring at the end of the month from St. James Episcopal Church and Day School in Baton Rouge, ending a long and successful career as a priest and educator within the Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana.
It’s fitting that his last position has been with St. James--the church he grew up attending every Sunday. Now somewhat of a St. James historian, Howe reflected, “I remember how I would stand on the kneeler so I could see over the top of the pew and see Parson Werlein at the altar.” He remembers going to Sunday school in the Day School building (now Werlein Hall), and he remembers when there was a bank in the space where Bishops Hall now stands--he used to have an account there. He even remembers Killgore Hall housing a radio station, then apartments, and then offices, before it became the Early Childhood Development Center.
Ralph has served in Episcopal churches and schools in Louisiana since 1981, which is also the year he and his wife Suzette were married. He completed his undergraduate and graduate studies at Sewanee: The University of the South and General Theological Seminary in New York City. After positions in New Orleans, Alexandria, and Crowley, Howe took the call to come to Trinity Episcopal in Baton Rouge, which was the first work experience he had directly connected to a school. As the rector of Trinity, Howe also served as the Head of School and the Chaplain. All of Ralph and Suzette’s children attended Trinity and then went on to Episcopal High School. Following Trinity, Howe served for 10 years as the Chaplain at Episcopal High School before taking the call from Mark Holland to return to St. James as an Associate Priest and Day School Chaplain.
Although Howe always saw himself as a chaplain more than a K-12 educator, he is grateful for the joy working with children has brought him. In a recent conversation about his retirement, he mentioned how much he will miss seeing “the smiles on the kids’ faces and the hugs and the high fives, and the ‘Hey Father Ralph’s’.” He chuckled and noted that he’s often been mistaken as Father Michael, Father Mark, or others. Whether teaching preschool students a new song or high school seniors about the Bible, Howe maintains the same goal: “People are going to forget what I taught them about the Bible, but what I hope they remember is my goal to love those kids and let them know that there’s something bigger out there that we call God that loves them and that took on human flesh to show us that love.”
During his final year at St. James, Ralph has had the added bonus of working with his longtime close friend Michael Kuhn, the Interim Head of School for 2019-2020. With Michael joining the school leadership, Ralph witnessed “a school that I thought was great get even better.”
Howe said he’s always amazed by the teachers and administrative staff at the Day School, but he certainly has amazed them, too. During the COVID-19 school building closure, Ralph’s love for the community was never more evident. He took prayers from the Book of Common Prayer, adapted them for a younger audience, recorded himself reading them, and published them for parents to say with their children at the end of each day at home. “Evening Prayers with Father Ralph” brought comfort by helping the community pray for frontline workers, parents, students, teachers, and relevant topics like times of leisure and graduation. Parents expressed their gratitude all season through countless likes, shares, and comments on the Day School Facebook page.
Reflecting on his years with students, Howe said, “I always thought of myself as a parish priest. I never thought I would be teaching in a school, but it has been such an incredible joy for me to have the contact with those kids over the years. I love working in a church (the liturgy, preaching, pastoral work, and outreach), but to work with kids brings so much joy. Episcopal schools have been such a blessing to my children and their education, and to be a part of that in the lives of other kids--the joy comes back to me. I always get so much more than I give. It’s been great.”
After taking a much-deserved break in retirement, Father Ralph will visit and volunteer at the Day School as well as the church and homeless ministry. He’ll also enjoy time with Suzette, their four children, and several grandchildren. He will always hold VIP status on our campus and be known for his unparalleled contributions to St. James Church, the Day School, and the Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana.