National Catholic Register


Rising From the Rubble

After hurricane, Catholics responded early, stayed long


Register Correspondent

August 27-September 2, 2006 Issue | Posted 8/28/06 at 9:00 AM


NEW ORLEANS — Several days after Hurricane Katrina, James Kelly went from the Superdome to Louis Armstrong Airport. In a dimly lit waiting area by one of the airport gates, the executive director of Catholic Charities in the Archdiocese of New Orleans came across a doctor and a nurse who were tending to 30 frail senior citizens on stretchers, all covered in blankets up to their necks. Most of them were close to death. He began to pray over each person. He remembers telling a woman whose name tag identified her as “Edna” that she was going to be okay, that she had a beautiful smile and that he loved her.

“And I told her that God loved her and that he loved her infinitely more than I did,” he recalled. “I told her that he would come and would hold her hand and that he would take her home. And I said to Edna, ‘If you don’t mind, I’m going to bless you.’ And I reached up and made the Sign of the Cross on her forehead.”

And then, as Kelly got up to pray over the next senior, Edna, whom he thought was comatose, tried to touch him with her hands. He pushed her hands down so she could save her energy, and then she pushed away the blanket and reached up with her hand and moved her fingers across his forehead in an effort to bless him in return. But she did not have enough energy, he said, so all she ended up doing was hitting his forehead with her fingers three times.

“That was a grace-filled moment,” Kelly said. “And obviously in Edna’s face was the face of God. But it was also God telling me that I will bless you, and I will bless New Orleans throughout this crisis, that I will give you the grace that you need, and I will give New Orleans the grace that it needs to be able to rise again.

“Look, we in our faith know that there are no resurrections without Good Fridays. That there are no Easters without the cross,” he said. “Our faith calls us to believe in a loving and merciful God who will never ever abandon us.”

The story of the Gulf Coast region since the Category 3 storm made landfall Aug. 29, 2005, is the story of grace and faith in action, of Good Friday followed by Easter. The hurricane may have caused major flooding, about $81 billion worth of damage and more than 2,000 deaths. But it also left behind a Catholic Church that Kelly described this way: “The Church has been pruned and there’s new life sprouting on the branches, and it pops up in different parts, but the branches are stronger. But it’s only beginning to grow again. It’s only beginning to show new life and new color and that new vibrancy,” he said.

The statistics bear out the kind of destruction the Gulf Coast region has endured. Church officials supplied the following numbers:

— In greater New Orleans, about 200,000 homes were destroyed, with 18,000 businesses closed or damaged, while 113 of 136 parishes have reopened. Twenty-three parishes are temporarily closed. Eighty-three of 107 schools have reopened to educate approximately 40,000 students.

— More than 5,000 volunteers from across the country have helped out in the New Orleans area.

— About 500,000 people have received some type of service or care from Catholic Charities; during a normal year, that number is usually around 125,000.

— In the Diocese of Biloxi, 428 of 433 Church-owned structures were destroyed or severely damaged, with more than $70 million in damages sustained, while the Archdiocese of New Orleans is dealing with $120 million in uninsured property loss.

‘A Renewed Church’

Several Church officials pointed out that although the damage, stress, death and loss of property have been great, grace is paving the way for new opportunities.

Archbishop Alfred Hughes of New Orleans admitted that God’s ways are mysterious, but that people need to cooperate with his grace. He cited one example: his priests, most of whom have “found a new appreciation of the significance of their priestly ministry.”

And he cited the help his archdiocese has gotten from his brother bishops and from generous people who have donated or volunteered. In fact, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops approved another national hurricane collection campaign Aug. 26-27 to help New Orleans and the Diocese of Biloxi. A previous collection raised $130 million.

“I think we have an opportunity to be a renewed Church and a new New Orleans,” he said. “We need to address in our culture what is noble and good and decide to let go of the dimensions of our culture that are degrading of the human person or violent toward human life. I see the voice of the Church calling attention to that.”

He cited as an example the Vietnamese community as a sign of what can happen when the Church works together. He said the Vietnamese people, most of whom arrived after the fall of Saigon in 1975, are not part of the political structure in New Orleans, so their needs were being ignored, even though most of them live in a part of town that was totally flooded.

So they organized, he said. They set up an evacuation shelter in Baton Rouge. They put together teams of parishioners who went from home to home to clean, gut and restore each other’s residences. They brought in architects to help them develop a plan for reconstruction of their community to have it centered on their church, Mary Queen of Vietnam. They want to construct facilities for their elderly to have access to independent living, assisted living and nursing homes. They want to set up facilities for their young people to keep them connected to the Church and to their traditions. And they have banded together to put political pressure on the city to have more of a voice in local matters.

“My hat is off to that kind of example of what it means to be Church, what it means to be a community of faith and what it means to be a community together,” said Archbishop Hughes.

Father William Maestri, superintendent of schools for the archdiocese, said that the archdiocese has learned that being proactive and results-oriented has replaced old ways of thinking. He gave the example of Archbishop Rummel High School, normally an all-boys’ school, which opened in October. To accommodate public and private school children whose schools were not re-opened, Church officials divided the day into two parts: 1,100 youths who would have gone to Rummel went to school from 6:50 a.m. until 12:30 p.m., and then more than 2,000 students from another 14 other schools went to the transitional school from 1 to 6 p.m.

“The transitional school was co-ed,” he said. “That means the school had to change bathroom facilities. We never had one single incident. Not one fight. Not one [instance of] sexually inappropriate language and conduct. No parent, no student complained from being moved from the morning to the afternoon.”

No one was turned away on account of not being able to pay tuition, he added.

“I think that the clear evidence in New Orleans is that Catholic schools have been a remarkable story of action, inclusion and success for the common good,” he said.

Many officials cited the impact of the volunteers who have streamed in to help people in the Gulf Coast region. One volunteer, Paul Clark, a 19-year-old student from Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan., has visited New Orleans three times since December. During his last visit, in June, he slept on a sleeping bag with a group of other volunteers for several weeks on the floor of a convent, which had been damaged from flooding.

“It still feels like a ghost town,” he said.

What impressed him the most during his visits to help out was the faith of the people. “They haven’t had their faith shaken,” he said. “They have more of a faith.”

But even when you have faith, times are still difficult. The sense of loss is acute.

“I think the people of New Orleans are like walking dead people trying to figure out which direction we’re going,” said Connie Andry, director of homeless services for Catholic Charities for the archdiocese.

Andry has become homeless herself since the hurricane hit. She has lived at seven locations — including a one-bedroom apartment with nine other people — and now she, her husband and their dog live in a Federal Emergency Management Agency trailer parked on her brother’s property in Central City.

“A trailer isn’t so bad after you live with so many people, you know,” she said. “We thank God for the trailer.”

Carlos Briceño is based in

Seminole, Florida.