NASHVILLE, Tenn. — When the floodwaters began rising on May 1, the Nashville Dominicans found themselves at the heart of it. The Richland Creek flows directly through the Dominican Campus — home to Aquinas College, St. Cecilia Academy, an all-girls college preparatory high school, and Overbrook School, an elementary school — located approximately four miles west of downtown.

“We had lakeside property,” said Sister Catherine Marie Hopkins, executive director of the Dominican Campus. “The water rose, but it didn’t reach the buildings.”

“I’ve been here 25 years, and I’ve seen flooding, but nothing nearing this,” said Sister Catherine Marie. “I’ve never seen anything quite so destructive in all my life.”

The torrential rains created the worst natural disaster in the modern history of middle Tennessee, causing unprecedented flood damage, killing 23 people and leaving thousands displaced. Nashville Mayor Karl Dean has said the damage will easily exceed $1.5 billion.

Sister Catherine Marie said that many of the elementary school’s families live in Bellevue, a Nashville suburb that was hit the hardest by the flooding.

“More than 25 of their families had significant damage to their homes,” said Sister Catherine Marie. “Countless others lost cars and other valuables.”

Thirteen families at St. Cecilia Academy had extensive flood damage to their homes, as did faculty and staff.

“An e-mail calling for information and help revealed seven families that had lost homes and 125 families ready to take them in,” said Sister Mary Thomas, principal of St. Cecilia Academy.

Sister Catherine Marie told the story of an employee from the Sudan who works in the motherhouse kitchen. While driving home on May 1, the woman got caught in water on the interstate.

“The water was up to her neck,” said Sister Catherine Marie. “She called home and told her five children that she didn’t think she was going to make it home.”

“Someone ended up getting her out,” she continued. “When she got home, she and her children got on their knees and prayed for all those who were in danger because of the flood and in thanksgiving for saving her life.”

Novices and school sisters did what they could to help families in the community as well. Some helped tear out drywall; others scrubbed floors and walls in homes. Sister Maria Kolbe (pictured), a junior-high religion teacher, helped a resident salvage photos retrieved from a flooded basement.

One of the most dramatic stories Sister Catherine Marie told was of a bedridden man with multiple sclerosis who was caught in the flood in Bellevue. He called his 40-year-old son to express his concern about the rising water.

“The son said he would come get him, but on the way there, the roads were completely covered with water so that he couldn’t drive,” said Sister Catherine Marie. “He ended up swimming to reach his father. When he arrived, the water had risen to the second floor and reached his father’s bed.”

“As soon as he arrived, his father said, ‘I knew you would come,’” she said. “His son ended up floating his father out of the house.”

In the aftermath, residents continue to show the world why Tennessee is known as the “Volunteer State.” The Nashville Diocese’s parishes and school communities quickly pulled together to help neighbors. Hundreds of parish volunteers have stepped up to help homeowners clear out their flooded homes; many more members of the diocese have offered their prayers and donated generously to relief efforts. For the most part, diocesan schools and parishes, including the most historic ones, escaped the floods unscathed except for minor damage. The chancery office had water damage on the first floor and had to pull out all the carpets, but no archives or valuables were damaged.

The flood of May 2010 will be “a personal tragedy for a lot of people,” Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen said.

In a letter to the people of the Diocese of Nashville, Bishop David Choby wrote:

“My Dear People of God: The recent unprecedented flooding in Middle Tennessee has devastated our Catholic community. Our prayers and our thoughts go out, especially to our families who lost loved ones. Our prayers for them will remain constant in the days ahead.

“I want to especially thank the parishes and schools for their quick and generous responses to their families touched by this tragedy. I have spoken with the pastors of the parishes most seriously affected, letting them know that there will be some resources coming to us from outside the diocese, which will be made available to them to assist in responding to the needs of the victims seeking assistance from them. This will help in terms of the need of an ongoing effort to help.

“A number of bishops, representing a number of Catholic communities, have either called or e-mailed words of concern and support. I have told them how grateful that all of us are for their prayerful concern.

“Finally, I want to thank Catholic Charities for their very capable response. They were especially helpful to those in our community who had no local family support system to fall back on.

“There will be much that remains to be done, but together we can make every effort to respond as best we can.”

(CNS contributed to this article.)