BATON ROUGE, La. — In the days following Hurricane Katrina, Catholics stepped in where the government often could not.
Their unprecedented, monumental relief and recovery effort is bringing spiritual, financial and emotional support to those hardest hit by the disaster.
Hundreds of faith-based organizations and Catholic parishes throughout Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas and elsewhere immediately mobilized to offer survivors food, clothing, shelter and more. Their response is bringing much-needed help and assistance to evacuees who lost their homes, jobs and loved ones.
Financial assistance alone has been overwhelming. At press time, U.S. charities had raised more than $600 million in cash and pledges, amounting to twice the amount gathered after the terrorist attacks of Sept.11, 2001. Catholic Charities and the Knights of Columbus are among the groups spearheading major fund-raising efforts.
The Knights of Columbus Supreme Council (KofC.org) announced the largest disaster relief effort in its history, pledging a minimum of $2.5 million in financial assistance. The Knights plan to match any funds in excess of that amount donated to the Knights of Columbus Katrina Relief Fund over the next 60 days.
Assistance goes far beyond the financial. It also includes the spiritual.
Churches, relief centers, arenas and individual homes have opened their doors to thousands of evacuees from the region. The population of cities such as Houston and Lafayette, La., has risen dramatically. The populations of capitals Baton Rouge and Jackson, Miss., have doubled in a little over a week.
In Texas, the American Red Cross has opened shelters in Catholic churches such as San Juan Diego in Pasadena, St. Francis Cabrini in Houston, and St. Mary's in Brenham. Catholic parishes as far away as San Francisco are offering housing as well.
Many priests have been offering spiritual guidance and the sacraments to evacuees in shelters such as the Cajundome, home of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette Ragin Cajuns’ basketball team. Father Bryce Sibley, pastor of St. Joseph's Church in Parks, La., is one of them. Although he admits that he wasn't able to minister to a great number of people because the majority has not been Catholic, he did use the opportunity to evangelize.
“I gave out a number of prayer cards to refugees and volunteers alike, some of them not even Catholic,” said Father Sibley. “Along with it, I was able to explain the importance of the Rosary and the faith.”
Legionary Father Patrick Murphy of Atlanta has also been meeting with evacuees at the Cajundome to offer counsel and the sacrament of reconciliation. He told the heartbreaking story of meeting with a man who had lost his wife and two daughters.
“This man had received a call from St. Bernard County that morning,” said Father Murphy. “They found his wife and two girls dead. Before they died, they had written him a note that the caller had read to the man. His wife had said, ‘I love you and want you to get married again.’ The girls had said, ‘Daddy, please name your future children after us.’
“He broke down crying and told me, ‘God has a reason.’ As he sat on his mattress he told me, ‘You don't know how much it means to me just to have you here.’ All I could do was listen to him, be there for him, and pray with him.”
The sudden influx of evacuees has also meant the need for additional classrooms. Catholic schools and universities across the country have opened their doors to students displaced by the hurricane. An estimated 64,700 Catholic elementary, high school and college students in Biloxi and New Orleans were impacted by the disaster.
Communities such as Little Rock, Ark., Shreveport, La., and Jackson have welcomed the students, even if they don't quite know how they will meet the need.
“The Catholic educational system in some areas is doubling in size,” said Ken Davison, executive director of Catholic World Mission, a Connecticut-based relief organization that is partnering with the Register in relief efforts. “We are launching an effort to help the Catholic education system absorb those families, and are focusing on tuition assistance.”
The organization's first financial aid was sent to St. Joseph's Parish in Pounchatoula. The parish was experiencing an increase in the size of their parish school and was housing a displaced priest.
“We sent them money to help them absorb their students,” explained Davison. “We're also looking at supplying them textbooks.”
Fifth-grade school teacher Mandy Chocheles from Metairie, just outside New Orleans, was overwhelmed by the reception her family received from St. Thomas More Catholic School in Baton Rouge when she went to register her granddaughter. Chocheles, her husband, daughter and family evacuated their home in Metairie and have been staying with her sister in Baton Rouge.
“We were notified by the state superintendent of schools that we needed to enroll our children,” said Chocheles. “Friday morning we went to St. Thomas More, and they could not have been nicer. They told us to come back on Tuesday. When we did the entire gym was filled with uniforms, socks, underwear, backpacks and school supplies that had been donated by families.
“I was speechless,” she added. “They are starting an entirely new kindergarten, and my granddaughter starts school on Thursday. Whether we're here for two weeks or six weeks she'll have that structure. She needs that.”
The Church in New Orleans and Biloxi, Miss., was hardest hit by Katrina.
“Sunday was perhaps the first time since 1725 that Mass has not been said in a parish church in New Orleans,” said New Orleans Archbishop Alfred Hughes a week after the disaster.
At least 14 Catholic churches in the Biloxi Diocese were destroyed or damaged beyond repair.
“Virtually every one of the [diocese's 57] buildings are damaged,” Biloxi Bishop Thomas Rodi told the Biloxi Sun Herald.
But when one part of the body of Christ suffers, other parts pitch in to help. Catholic churches as far away as Michigan and New York have helped in the relief efforts.
When Father Brian Stanley at St. Charles Borromeo Church in Coldwater, Mich. asked parishioners to make donations, they responded immediately, filling the church's gymnasium and church hall with donations of linens and clothing that will be donated to evacuees who will be staying at nearby military bases.
When a local store heard what parishioners were doing, the store offered customers a 20% discount on linens and towels.
“The U.S. Army sent us a PLS, which is a large, flatbed truck with 10 wheels,” said Father Stanley. “On the back was a metal container for 33 cubic meters, or 1,165 square feet. I am most happy to report that our little parish filled that container with sheets, blankets, pillows and clothing. We had it packed and on the road in half an hour.”
The Catholic Youth and Young Adults group in New York is working together to organize several fund-raisers to assist evacuees. “Let's perform a marvelous act of charity,” said organizer Mario Bruschi.
In response, the group is planning Catholic art exhibits, concerts, and Eucharistic adoration days for praying for the suffering. The group plans to post events online at www.events4jc.com.
Davison spoke of the important need for faith-based organizations to step up to the plate.
“The rebuilding of families and the Church won't be done by secular relief organizations,” said Davison. “That's where we need to step in.”
Tim Drake is based in St. Joseph, Minnesota.
The National Catholic Register is teaming with Catholic World Mission to provide material and spiritual assistance to Hurricane Katrina survivors. Catholics know that body and soul are one, and yet many aid organizations treat the body but not the soul. Catholic World Mission has already begun rebuilding the families and the faith of hurricane survivors. Read more about what we are doing on page 10.
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