NEW ORLEANS — Blessed Sacrament Sister Grace Mary Flickinger says the acts of kindness she witnessed during Hurricane Katrina aren't likely to make CNN.
But she and other survivors of the historic storm are beginning to tell their stories as recovery efforts get under way and flood waters recede. What is emerging is a tale of faith and heroism by priests, religious and ordinary laypeople who prayed and sheltered others as Katrina battered the Gulf Coast.
Sister Flickinger, a professor of biology at Xavier University in New Orleans, was among more than 250 Xavier faculty, administrators, sisters, students and others who hunkered down during and after the storm on the campus founded by St. Katharine Drexel.
Because the school's original thick-walled, limestone buildings have withstood previous hurricanes, Sister Flickinger said, “We decided it was safer to stay.” Everyone in the group, except Arthur Simmons, an elderly man who was a friend of the college, survived.
Simmons died peacefully while the storm raged outside, Sister Juliana Haynes, public affairs coordinator for the Blessed Sacrament Sisters in Bensalem, Pa., said. His body was covered with a blanket and left in the music building, where he and his wife, Eloise, had been staying. A funeral home later removed the body, but services and burial have yet to be held.
The Xavier group fared well until a nearby levee broke, spilling flood waters onto the campus.
College administrators and campus police found and used a rowboat to travel between buildings where various groups had taken shelter. They used the boat also to retrieve food from storage so meals could be cooked. On Aug. 31, the vice president for fiscal affairs rowed the boat to the Louisiana Superdome to notify authorities that survivors were on the campus. They were rescued the next day.
In the meantime, the group dined on red beans, rice and sausage, and hot dogs and baked beans. The day of their rescue, Sister Flickinger said, they had a turkey in the oven, but when they were told they had only 15 minutes to get ready for departure, they left the food for their rescuers.
Once they were evacuated by boat, the group's ordeal wasn't over. They were relocated to a section of Interstate 10, where they remained with other evacuees for about eight hours.
St. Katharine Drexel
As sunset approached, Sister Flickinger said, “I kept saying over and over, ‘Mother Katharine, you've got to get us out of here before dark because our students could get hurt.’ You didn't know what would happen after dark. All of a sudden, the army trucks came.”
The Xavier evacuees were taken to buses that transported them to Baton Rouge, where Xavier alumni and others were waiting to greet and house them.
The Sacred Heart Brothers, who operate St. Stanislaus College School, a boarding and day school for boys in grades 6-12 in Bay St. Louis, Miss., also remained on their campus during Katrina to be with about 50 of their foreign students.
Faculty members, their families and neighbors of the school joined the group in a building that was thought to be the most secure because it had been constructed after Hurricane Camille. Brother Ivy LeBlanc, Sacred Heart provincial, said the building is on what used to be Beach Boulevard. “There's nothing there now,” he said. “We're still there, but we're about it.”
Eventually, the group was rescued by a group of brothers from Baton Rouge who drove to Bay St. Louis to get the students and 20 brothers from an assisted-living unit.
Brother LeBlanc said the experience of staying on campus during the hurricane was harrowing.
“Everybody was scared,” he said. “It was a very dangerous thing. They could look out and see the water and what it was doing. It was very frightening. We're men of deep belief, but also very practical men. We build practical buildings, we take steps to protect our kids and we pray. It's a holistic approach to integrating our faith and our life. Did God protect us? Unquestionably. It's only by the grace of God that some of our men are here.”
Mike Dorner of New Orleans, known as the “Catholic Radio Answer Man” for his Catholic Radio Directory, also credited prayer, specifically the intercession of St. Benedict, with saving his home. “There was no damage, either from water or, surprisingly, wind,” he said. “A large pine snapped in half and just missed our eaves.”
Dorner, who was staying with relatives in Lafayette, La., said an elderly woman who has lived much of her life near the Benedictine Monastery north of Covington, La., told him some years ago that a house and a person carrying a St. Benedict's medal receive many blessings.
“She gave me a medal back then and told me to put it over my front door,” Dorner recalled, adding “that St. Benedict would bless the house and protect it. She said that despite decades of hurricanes passing over and nearby, her house, built in the mid-1800s, has never had significant damage from a hurricane, which she attributed to St. Benedict.”
Although the woman's suggestion initially struck him as a bit like superstition, he put the medal over his front door. “One of the last things I did before leaving at 5:45 a.m. Sunday, Aug. 29, was check to see that the medal was still there. It was,” he said.
Many other homes in Dorner's neighborhood escaped damage from falling trees as well, he said.
Dorner said he wouldn't want to conclude that all the houses that were spared had St. Benedict medals. “What I do think and emphasize is God does reward faith, in one way or another, for his own reasons and in his own way,” he said.
Knights to the Rescue
Members of the Knights of Columbus, a group known for its charitable work, also responded during the emergency.
Bryant Collins of Birmingham, Ala., state deputy of the Knights’ Alabama State Council, said a Knight helped rescue a little girl from a flooded home in Bayou La Batre, outside Mobile. Collins said, “There was a family trying to get out of a house and the mother said, ‘I can't find my daughter.’ [A Knight] in the crowd took off running back inside the house. The water was coming in, and he brought her out. She was looking for her stuffed animal.”
Collins said the Knight belongs to a council at St. Margaret's Church that had been reinstituted June 30 after being dormant more than 30 years. The council's 30 members had banded together to rescue people from flooded homes.
Collins also told how Maurice Dupont of Mobile, the Knights’ Alabama state treasurer, was housing employees of his construction firm in Pascagoula, Miss., in his home and helping them clean out their houses before dealing with his flooded office.
“He felt like it was his job to take care of his workers,” Collins said. “He said he had to get them settled first.”
Judy Roberts is based in Graytown, Ohio.
Sisters Stared Down the Storm
NEW ORLEANS — Last week, we reported about the sisters who evacuated themselves, those they care for, and their employees’ families.
But some of the sisters in the many convents of New Orleans stayed put.
Take the two Sisters of the Holy Family who remained in their New Orleans motherhouse to care for Precious, their dog, and Juana, their parrot.
Sisters Canice and Canisius La-strapes, 83-year-old twins, were eventually rescued by the U.S. Coast Guard, along with their pets, and flown to El Paso, Texas, where they are staying with the Loretto Sisters.
Asked if she was afraid during the two nights before rescuers came, Sister Canice said, “Not at all.”
Sister Canice said she and her sister were taken to the Sisters of Loretto after a chance encounter with a bishop as they were getting off a bus in El Paso. “He said, ‘Oh no, sisters, wait. I know some sisters who will take you in,’” Sister Canice said.
Carmelite Sister Cheryl Scheaffer, a nursing assistant at University Hospital in New Orleans, also stayed in the city during and after the hurricane as she was part of the hospital's activation team, which remains at the facility during storm threats.
By the afternoon of Aug. 29, she said, “We thought everything was okay.” Then, with the levees breached and the flood waters moving in, the hospital lost all power. Worse yet, efforts to evacuate the most seriously ill patients were hampered by snipers shooting at rescuers. By Sept. 2, however, most of the 160 patients and staff had been moved to safety.
“I'm glad I was there to be able to help out,” Sister Scheaffer said. “There were times when it was frightening. … From day to day, I wondered if they were going to get us out.”
Elsewhere, many religious communities opened their buildings to evacuees even as they were dealing with the effects of the storm themselves.
The School Sisters of Notre Dame in Chatawa, Miss., for example, sheltered 180 people at their St. Mary of the Pines retirement home and retreat center about 90 miles east of New Orleans. A week after the hurricane, 100 people were still with them.
The Divine Word Missionaries in Bay St. Louis, Miss., housed 23 local people in their former novitiate even though their campus sustained severe damage.
“We share our food and water and some help us out by cooking,” Divine Word Father Augustine Wall wrote in a memo. “I was quite happy to see we had opened our doors to as many people as we were capable of helping.”
In New Orleans, the Little Sisters of the Poor opened their damaged Mary-Joseph Residence for the Elderly to firefighters and several police precincts for use as a command post. The home was evacuated before the storm and the residents moved to a nursing home in Baton Rouge. Although most of the roof was blown off the New Orleans building, some floors were habitable, and the sisters were pleased that the food they had stored was being used.
“We're happy about that because we had a lot of food in the freezer, and now they'll eat it,” Mother Paul Mary Wilson said. “It won't rot!”
— Judy Roberts