PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Hurricane Irene hit the Eastern seaboard of the United States just in time for the Sunday Mass schedule Aug. 27-28. While most Masses still took place, dioceses urged parishioners to be careful.
Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence, R.I., issued a dispensation releasing the faithful from the weekend's Masses because of the "predicted arrival of Hurricane Irene and the dangers associated with that storm."
The bishops of Brooklyn, Rockville Centre and New York did the same.
"Catholics take Sunday Mass very seriously, but the Church never asks us to risk our health or safety to get to church on the Lord's Day," said New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan.
The Diocese of Springfield, Mass., also told parishioners that they should remain home if the weather was bad.
"We have not issued an across-the-board suspension of services," said Mark Dupont, Diocese of Springfield spokesman. "We've told parishioners to use their best judgment and follow the advice of local officials."
Most did decide to stay home. St. Michael's Cathedral in Springfield, which is typically full, had no more than a dozen people attending any of the church's Sunday Masses.
The power at St. Hugh of Grenoble in Greenbelt, Md., went out at 4am Sunday morning, when the height of the storm was hitting Washington, D.C., Virginia and Maryland.
Despite the lack of power, 300 congregants — nearly half of the church's membership — showed up for the three Masses on Sunday morning. All three services were celebrated by candlelight.
"Half of the congregation came in really dreadful conditions, in the dark, when they had essentially been given a free pass from the archdiocese," said Father Scott Hurd. "I was really proud of them."
Irene hit the United States as an 87-mph hurricane in North Carolina on Aug. 27 and left the country as a weakened 60-mph tropical storm late the next day. In its wake, it left more than 4.5 million people without power, at least 42 dead as of Aug. 31, many downed trees and severe flooding in parts of North Carolina, New York, New Jersey and Vermont.
In parts of northern New England, New Jersey and upstate New York, the nearly 17 inches of rain turned already swollen creeks and rivers into raging torrents. In New York City, an 8-foot Atlantic storm surge sent floodwater into Lower Manhattan, and the Hudson River was overflowing its banks in places.
Flooding was widespread throughout Vermont, where hundreds of people were told to leave Montpelier, the capital city. Water crested overnight at 19 1/2 feet. Vermont's Emergency Management Department said that 260 roads were affected by the flooding, many of them underwater, and as many as six covered bridges had been destroyed.
Parts of downtown Brattleboro and Bennington were under water Sunday. At least nine shelters were set up across the state for those who needed them.
"This is the worst I've ever seen in Vermont," said Mike O'Neil, the state's emergency management director.
In North Carolina's Outer Banks area, where the hurricane was strongest, places such as Hatteras Island, Duck, Rodanthe and Ocracoke had been cut off from the mainland by high water.
New York City, which had issued an evacuation order for 370,000 residents, said that residents could return to their homes the day after the storm. Subway, bus and train service, which had been shut down in an unprecedented decision by the mayor, was slowly being restored on Aug. 29. Airline flights were also being rescheduled. More than 11,000 flights were canceled because of the storm.
Many in North Carolina, where the hurricane struck Saturday, attended church Sunday morning to pray and give thanks that the storm wasn't worse.
The Diocese of Raleigh, N.C., was expecting to take up a special collection in all of its parishes for Catholic Charities to provide shelter, food and other basic necessities.
Frank Morock, communications director for the Diocese of Raleigh, said, "The faithful of the diocese, whether the disaster is in the diocese or anywhere, always respond generously."
Tim Drake is based in St. Joseph, Minnesota.