Archbishop Alfred Hughes has felt the full fury of Katrina's impact.
He evacuated New Orleans to Our Lady of Mercy Parish in Baton Rouge when Hurricane Katrina rolled in.
“I never thought the Lord was going to ask me to take this on at this age,” the 72-year-old leader of half a million New Orleans Catholics told reporters Sept. 4.
Register staff writer Tim Drake spoke to the archbishop Sept. 9 about the shape of his archdiocese and efforts to restore some sense of normalcy.
With your home underwater and drying out, where have you been staying?
I have been staying at Our Lady of Mercy rectory in Baton Rouge. Bishop Robert Muench has been extraordinary in helping us set up an administration in exile here. The administration is meeting on a daily basis, keeping one another informed of the progress being made. There is much happening on many fronts.
Have you had much contact with the evacuees?
Yes, I've been to all of the shelters, and will be returning. Tomorrow, I will be going into the city, with the blessing of the governor and lieutenant governor, to try to persuade people who are still holding out to leave for their own safety and health. Conditions have deteriorated so rapidly that disease now could very well take their lives.
What has the toll been on your flock?
It's a human catastrophe of epic proportions. We're trying to focus on the people first — their rescue, survival, medical care, food, water, shelter and helping them get reconnected with their families. We are also offering sacramental and pastoral care, being a pastoral presence and letting evacuees know that we want to walk the journey with them. We are also helping those who are going to need long-term relocation to get that.
The New Orleans archdiocese comprises eight civil parishes, known as counties in most other places. We're really hoping to be operational in five of the eight civil parishes, but three are completely devastated — Orleans, where the city is located; St. Bernard parish, which is east of the city; and Plaquemines parish, which is both southeast and southwest of the river.
Because we are focusing on people, we want to continue to make sure that the basic needs are being responded to, but we also want to keep our Catholic Church together — the employees. To do this without the offerings from the parishes will be a huge challenge, but we want those people who are willing to make an agreement that they will continue to serve in the archdiocese, we want to continue that even if it has to be a reduced salary. So many of them have lost so much else. We need extraordinary help.
At one point you were unable to account for 150 of your 300 total priests. How many have you found?
I do not know that number. They are scattered all over, and communications has been very difficult. Each day we are hearing from more priests. There is one priest that we are almost certain died. His church and rectory were carried out into the Gulf.
We have developed a pastoral response on the part of our priests. We have about 30 priests here in Baton Rouge. Our priests are working alongside the priests here. In a particular way, they are reaching out to those who are in the shelters because they are the poorest of the poor. They have the least support and need the presence of the Church signaling God's fidelity.
We have identified priests in those cities with the largest concentration of evacuees — Lafayette, Lake Charles, Thibodeaux, Shreveport, Alexandria, Jackson, Miss., Houston, Dallas and Atlanta — to work with the bishops there in providing pastoral support.
What about your seminarians?
We are relocating our seminary to St. Joseph's Abbey in Covington, [Ky.] About 100 seminarians will report back and resume studies on Oct. 1 with a revised calendar. The abbey has shut down their retreat house and turned it over to us. They have opened their guestrooms to faculty, and are opening a wing of a college dormitory for our seminarians.
We want the seminarians to remain close to the experience of the people whom they will be serving. The seminarians will have to make sacrifices and live in a very cramped situation, but feel that the experience will be formally very important.
Have you been encouraged by how the Church has responded to the tragedy?
Catholic Charities is working closely with community services here in Baton Rouge, and Catholic Relief Services and the American Red Cross have been working in the delivery of the basic needs for people. This is the first time that Catholic Relief Services, whose mission is to respond to disasters in other countries, is helping with a domestic disaster. We are grateful for Catholic Relief Services’ help because of their expertise in responding to last December's tsunami in Asia.
How have Catholic schools responded?
We've been placing a significant number of our children who had been enrolled in Catholic schools in Catholic schools here. Five thousand have been placed in Baton Rouge schools, and by Oct. 3 we will reopen two closed elementary schools here. We will have two elementary and two high schools conducted by New Orleans administrators and faculty.
Tim Drake writes from St. Joseph, Minnesota.