When Hurricane Sandy slammed into many towns along the coasts of New Jersey, New York, Long Island and Connecticut, not to mention inland areas as well, it left destruction that made many places resemble war zones.
Scores of main roads and highways had to be closed to traffic. Millions were without power for days that stretched into a week — and thousands even into a second week. Houses were inundated with water measured in feet.
New York City was virtually isolated, as subways and tunnels flooded, planes were grounded, and trains could not run. Mass transit came to a halt.
In the city’s borough of Queens, the Breezy Point beachfront section was not only flooded, but 100 homes burned to the ground. The devastation, especially along the coast, saw tens of thousands with no shelter when they had to evacuate their homes — and then, in many cases, there were no habitable homes to return to.
Father Frank Nelson, pastor of Maria Regina Church in Seaford, N.Y., 28 miles from Manhattan on Long Island, told Register staff writer Joseph Pronechen about his parish’s experiences dealing with the hurricane and its aftermath in a Nov. 5 interview.
A related story and more photos can be found on page 3.
How close are you to the Atlantic Ocean?
Closer to the bay (than the) Atlantic — our parish is large and goes up to the ocean and Seaford Shores. The church itself and the parish grounds are about three miles from the water.
How did the parish weather the hurricane?
We’re still without power at this point (Monday afternoon, Nov. 5). We sustained mostly trees down; roofs pulled apart; signs down. At this point, we’re all still finding our way.
God has been good because our rectory never lost power. We formed a shelter for folks, both parishioners and non-parishioners. We were giving them meals, and they got a hot shower and even a place to sleep.
We had up to 11 people at one time. That’s as many as we can hold here.
Surely that brought a lot of people comfort. Can you share a story with us?
One of the priests in residence is Msgr. Jim Vlaun. His parents live on the south shore of the island and were without power. His mom suffers from Alzheimer’s. They didn’t want to leave their home. By Thursday (after the hurricane), we convinced them to come here.
When his mother arrived, she was freezing, shaking, terrified. She was spiritually empty. She had been praying, and she was drained. She just needed to be close to people she loved. She has only one son, Msgr. Vlaun, so it was good for us to be able to offer his parents hospitality.
One of our other priests who lives in residence here, Father Tom Gallagher, said times like this put a very human face on the rectory. I thought that was a nice statement.
How have your parishioners reacted to the damage?
Everybody was touched by the storm, one way or another. Some lost power; some lost homes. If your power didn’t go off, you had the opportunity of opening your home and your life to another. And people did step up. There are many stories of parishioners opening their homes.
I heard from all the parishioners this weekend (who all said the same thing): "We continue to count our blessings because things could have been much worse."
Were you also able to reach out to other parishes?
Our neighbors sustained quite a bit of damage.
We were doing a collection — of clothes, non-perishable foods, batteries, flashlights — to help. As we were beginning to load up trucks, a lady pulled up with her two small children in the back seat. She was heading to Long Beach (a few miles away, directly on the water) to her sister and a number of friends who had lost everything.
At that moment, as God would provide, we loaded her car with food, blankets, bottles of water, flashlights and pajamas for the kids, and we sent her on her way. There have been many stories like that.
Are you also working with others to bring relief?
We are in the midst of this huge diocesan campaign — because most of the south shore of Long Island was pretty devastated, and they’re estimating a loss of approximately 100,000 homes in the tri-state area (New York, New Jersey and Connecticut).
On top of the storm, you have these terrible fires in these homes (especially Breezy Point). There’s not even a chance of rebuilding what’s there. They have to start from scratch.
Anything in particular strike you about the scenes of destruction?
The most impressive picture I saw was a statue of the Blessed Mother in the midst of the ruins [the photo that accompanies this interview]. It was one of those pictures that reminded you of the bombing of Berlin. But here was a beautiful lawn statue, filled with flowers around it that people have made into a shrine of hope.
Were there some ways you brought a similar sign to your parish?
On All Souls’ Day, Friday night, we had a special parish Mass, where we read all the names of the people who died during the year. All the power was out in the church, so we rigged up two small lights to read from the Roman Missal.
In my homily, I reminded the people of (the time past when Christians would be) celebrating Mass in the catacombs, the place where people went to pray for the dead, to gather when frightened, to be close to family and to one another. They prayed and celebrated the Eucharist and left in hope.
That was the feeling of Friday night. They came to church to be with family, to be with each other. We prayed. We remembered their loved ones who died last year, and we left in hope.
It’s very uplifting to hear of this hope in the midst of this devastation and hardship. You must also see it inspiring Christian virtue.
Yes. If you look around, you see the stories of people helping people, of seeing Christ in another person. Remember, that’s who God created us to be. This is not for just in storms, but the way people are supposed to be every day: to help sisters and brothers, to put their needs before your own.
Open your eyes. Teach the children. This is a teaching moment. This is the time the Church’s face can truly be the face of Christ for one another.
People are good. They want to be good. They want to find the path to the Garden of Eden that God promised us, and it’s up to the Church to show them that path.
It took a storm, but I’m proud that the Church has taken a leadership role in calling us to be disciples to one another.
It’s a lesson and hope for the future.
Joseph Pronechen writes from Trumbull, Connecticut.