By Becky Aubut, Anchor Staff
NEW BEDFORD, Mass. — When Cecilia Felix first met Maurice Ouellette, she wasn’t even principal of Holy Family-Holy Name School in New Bedford yet, but their friendship bore fruit not just personally but professionally when she called upon him to help create a performance art program at HFHN.
“I think the arts have a very important part in our community and with kids. I wanted to reach out to the community; there’s a lot of talent in the city. I thought it would be good to bring good, wholesome entertainment here and this would become the center for it,” said Felix.
“Cecilia said that it would be great to do a community outreach through theatre, and I said sure,” said Ouellette. “I’ve been involved in theatre all my life, from high school throughout college in one capacity or another, in acting or directing or doing costume design.”
Twenty-five years later, the Laurel Tree Players (www.LaurelTreePlayers.org) has not only raised almost half-a-million dollars for the Catholic elementary school, the program has become a vital part of the school community.
Originally from Woonsocket, R.I., Ouellette moved to Fall River when he was still young. His parents were very involved in their parish in Fall River, helping out the Sisters of St. Joseph, fund-raising, and the Women’s Guild. Ouellette added that he and his brother were two of the youngest altar servers to serve at the parish.
“My parents were very involved and knew the importance of service. We learned the value of service through them because that’s who they were, and we learned through their example, and that’s what they expected to see from all their children,” said Ouellette of his other siblings that also includes two sisters.
He attended Bishop Connolly High School in Fall River when it was staffed by the Society of Jesus and then went to the Jesuit-run Fairfield University in Connecticut.
“Being taught by the Jesuits, I thought about becoming Jesuit and it was something in the back of my mind,” said Ouellette, who decided to pursue teaching instead. He felt drawn to the diaconate, but it wasn’t until he got married, moved to New Bedford and joined St. Lawrence Martyr Parish in New Bedford that his wife encouraged him to take the next step.
“She was the ultimate driving force behind it,” said Ouellette. “Once ordained in 2002, that’s where I was assigned and was there for 10 years or so, and for the past three years I’ve been at St. Julie Billiart.”
“It’s a blessing, it really is,” said Ouellette of being a deacon. “It’s an old saying but it’s true: you get more than what you give. It’s a blessing to be able to serve Our Lord in that ministry and at the altar, which has always been special to me even as an altar server. God spoke to me in my heart and it’s a humbling and amazing experience to be able to share my love of God in a special ministry with the parishioners.”
The name Laurel Tree Players came from one of its first cast members, who was in her 80s when she joined the company.
“She was a spitfire,” recalled Ouellette. “She passed away and we were thinking about what we could name it when we incorporate [the company], and we thought automatically, why don’t we name it in memory of Lori? That’s how the name came to be.”
Ouellette wrote the first few shows but he said he got too busy and began to buy the licensing rights to shows and musicals. He puts out calls and has auditions, and has built up a number of long-time regulars who make the Laurel Tree Players feel more like a “repertory company because there are a number of people who are always in the shows,” he said, adding his wife, Teresa, is the company’s music director.
Past shows have included, “The Odd Couple” (female version), “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” “Why do Fools Fall in Love?” “The 39 Steps,” (that had five actors play all the roles, said Ouellette) and the most recent performance, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.”
“I did that one because it’s the 25th year and it was in the title,” said Ouellette of the fitting choice. “Typically I choose shows that are going to appeal to our Catholic audience. Yes, I do sanitize some of these shows; I have to because of who we are and where we’re playing.”
Kids have been cast when there are roles available, but the students’ biggest roles takes place before each performance and during intermission. The seating is arranged “cabaret-style” with round tables spread throughout the school’s auditorium floor while the kids take orders of snacks and soft drinks and serve the audience.
“The kids are part of it and they do a good job. We have kids who do it all three nights — Friday, Saturday and Sunday,” said Ouellette. “From day one we’ve had cabaret seating, it’s just really a relaxed atmosphere. It’s not a big space but I can fit 300 people there with 10 to a table. We could get more seating with no tables but we just thought table seating would be great and people like it. It opens up to people relaxing and having great conversations with each other.”
It’s a great visual for the kids to see volunteerism in action while also taking part, said Felix: “I wanted the kids to see how the community supports the school, and also to see the talent of the Laurel Tree Players and that they give endless hours. They start in January and they’re not getting paid. Maurice isn’t getting paid.”
And while Ouellette may take center stage, he credits Felix as the one working hard behind-the-scenes raising the funds: “Cecilia is a huge part of it. She’s the one who really goes out and talks to the businesses to sponsor. She’s the driving force while I’m just there to do the show; I do all the creative stuff and she does the behind-the-scenes selling the ads.”
And all the money raised through the years goes right back to the students and the school’s educational programs because “tuition doesn’t touch it,” said Felix. “I think people think it does but you have general operating expenses — utilities, insurance — it’s just like any household but it’s magnified. The gas bill is $3,000-plus, and when you need snow removal; we’re probably around 15 or 16 grand this year [for snow removal]. You make a budget but it can get blown if something goes wrong, or you need more books or technology breaks.”
Neither Felix nor Ouellette thought the program would be this successful more than two decades later, and while Ouellette was quick to credit Felix and her drive, she was just as quick to give him credit, too.
“I don’t know how he does it all,” said Felix. “He’s highly talented and does not know how to say no. He’s very gracious and kind. He never complains and does a lot on his own. He has a tendency to be a pied piper; people enjoy working with him because he respects their talents. I just marvel at his talent; he’s a renaissance man.”
Ouellette retired from teaching at New Bedford High School but took up teaching Latin at Bishop Stang High School in North Dartmouth. He also is involved in the high school’s drama program during their fall and spring performances. The curtains have barely been drawn on the 25th performance by the Laurel Tree Players, but Ouellette already knows that next year’s show — “Little Shop of Horrors” — will once again bring together a community.
“When you think about the people involved, different cast members who have come though, it’s really nice. What’s different about us is we’re a prayerful community. As a cast we always begin, before we go out, coming together in prayer. It makes a difference and the fact that you’re dealing with faith-filled people who understand that all creativity is a blessing from God and we are asked to give it back — that’s a wonderful thing to work together with people who share those same values and faith.”