BROOKLYN, N.Y — The faith and generosity that Catholics in the borough of Queens are displaying as they struggle to get through the devastating aftermath of Hurricane Sandy are an inspiration to Father Richard Ahlemeyer.
St. Camillus and St. Virgilius parishes are in the Rockaway area of Queens in New York City, and they are among the worst- affected parishes in the Diocese of Brooklyn. The faithful there, however, are rising to the challenge brought to them by Providence.
“I’m humbled by the faith of the people, by the generosity of the people and by the spirit of the people, even in the face of such great adversity,” Father Ahlemeyer, pastor of the two parishes, told Catholic News Agency on Nov. 30.
“They’ve banded together, and they have worked together, shared together, and they’re doing that now. … It’s really been a remarkable experience of what was always there, a community and a cohesiveness of people wanting to work together.”
The experience is still not an easy one, though. Father Ahlemeyer estimates that, even now, a whole month after Hurricane Sandy made landfall, just over half of his parishioners have electricity and heat in their homes.
St. Camillus School was so badly damaged that it is unusable for the time being. The students there are being bused to Howard Beach, said Stefanie Gutierrez, the Diocese of Brooklyn's communications director. “So two school communities are stuffed into one building.”
“We’re beginning to realize the enormity of the personal loss,” said Father Ahlemeyer.
“They go back to their apartments and houses, and they have no electricity, or they have no boilers during the cold.”
Heating tents are being set up where people can stay “where they’d be warm, with the weather now getting colder,” he explained. Both St. Virgilius church and the rectory at St. Camillus remain without electricity.
St. Camillus is located in Rockaway Park, about two blocks from the Atlantic Ocean. St. Virgilius is in Broad Channel, in Jamaica Bay, across the peninsula from the ocean.
Of about 1,000 houses located in Broad Channel, Father Ahlemeyer said only one was unaffected by water damage from the hurricane.
“Now the problem is there are no boilers available, there are no parts available, and not that many electricians are available. And if there are, then getting materials to do the work (is an issue). … People are coming back to apartments; they don’t have boilers or they can’t get the parts or they can’t get a plumber because there’s a waiting list or the electricity is not done.
“I’ve heard of people who have driven to Pennsylvania to get parts. My brother James was coming down today from Albany; my brother Byron called and gave him a list of electrical supplies that are needed for the house in Broad Channel … and when he came down today he’d bring the stuff with him.”
Father Ahlemeyer reports that a day or two after the storm, he and Father Jimmy Dunne, who is in residence at St. Camillus, walked along the boulevard in Broad Channel to talk to people and see how they were doing.
“Everyone was just pulling out everything from their houses. … The places now are just shells, and then they had to rip out all the walls because of the mold, and now they’re just empty exposures.”
“You know, 9/11 made us appreciate in New York the framework of the first responders. … Hurricane Sandy’s gonna make us appreciate the sanitation department because of the work they’re doing removing the garbage. And it’s not even garbage. It’s people’s lives; it’s everything.”
He also recounted how, in the aftermath of the hurricane, the parish continues to experience deaths related to it “among our elderly, who were displaced and are now beginning to suffer shock because of that.”
Father Ahlemeyer’s mother’s best friend, Eileen, was buried recently. “The day before the funeral, the restoration company had come, and they cut out all the walls of the church four feet up, and it had to be done because of the mold … and the water was up over the pews.”
“Plus, there are real needs right now. We have a food program running out of our gymnasium. 100 people a day are coming to get food and hot meals because they don’t have any place to cook, and there are no places to buy food on the peninsula; no stores are open.”
“It’s nice to hear the generosity of people and the extraordinary response from other areas outside of the New York area. … And it’s needed; it’s needed. This is going to be a problem that won’t be solved in a day or a week.”
Donations for the parishes in the Brooklyn Diocese impacted by Hurricane Sandy can be made to Catholic Charities Brooklyn and Queens at CCBQ.org.
Father Ahlemeyer concluded by relating an inspiring conversation he had with a parishioner on the first Saturday after the hurricane struck.
“I went back to St. Virgilius, and one of the parishioners was there with a whole bunch of firemen, who were ripping up the carpet in the church because of the oil smell. I had been in the church, and I had to get out; I couldn’t even stay in there two minutes.”
“So these guys were ripping up the carpets, and one comes over to me and says, ‘Now, Father, we are having the 10 o’clock Mass tomorrow, right?’”
“I said, ‘Well, I know we can’t say Mass in here with the oil being what it is, because people couldn’t stay in here more than five minutes.’”
“He said, ‘Well, that’s why we took the carpet up. We’re going to put the benches back, and we’ll get the word out, Father, that there is Mass, ’cause I think the community needs Mass; we need to be able to come together.’”
“So,” Father Ahlemeyer recounts, “I said Mass at 10 at St. Virgilius, and people came, and they cried together, and they talked, and they held each other.”
“And I think that’s what the people needed: The people needed to be able to come together and reassure each other and support each other, and they wanted to do it in the context of the Mass.”