Higher Ground Faith and Terror Filled Nuns Fleeing the Flood

NEW ORLEANS — Families fleeing from the destruction of Katrina had a difficult time. Religious communities — with patients, pets, and their employees' families in tow — had it worse.

The Little Sisters of the Poor have weathered hurricanes before at their Mary-Joseph Residence for the Elderly here, but on Aug. 27, they knew something was different.

“This one we realized was of a size that was way beyond ‘beyond,'” Mother Paul Mary Wilson, superior of the New Orleans community, said. “They had been saying, ‘This is the big one.'”

Indeed it was. On the Mississippi coast, the storm killed more than 100 and leveled neighborhoods. In New Orleans, the storm broke the levee holding back Lake Pontchartrain and flooded the parts of New Orleans that are below sea level leaving countless people stranded or drowned.

On the morning of Aug. 28, the sisters embarked on an Exodus-like evacuation of the home's residents. They set out in two chartered buses and five vans holding 12 sisters, 64 residents, several employees and their families, two members of the Sisters Marianites of the Holy Cross from a nearby convent, five dogs, two cats and only the most basic supplies. The trip normally would have taken 75 minutes. Instead, it took 10 hours because of the volume of traffic leaving New Orleans.

The Little Sisters and their elderly residents from New Orleans were just one of many Catholic communities and families to be affected by Hurricane Katrina, which struck Florida's Dade County Aug. 26 and hit Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama Aug. 29.

EWTN's News Director Raymond Arroyo was among those who fled that city Aug. 27 before Katrina struck. A resident of New Orleans, Arroyo packed the family mini-van and took his wife, 10-day-old daughter, two sons and mother-in-law to Alabama, where EWTN is based in Irondale. The family was staying temporarily with nuns in Hanceville, Ala., at a guest home of Our Lady of the Angels Monastery.

“You live an abandoned life in New Orleans,” said Arroyo, whose suburban house is about seven minutes from downtown near Lake Pontchartrain. “And you don't know what that means until moments like this. Ultimately, you're in God's hands. The truth of the matter is this is how we exist every day, but we live in the delusion that we're in control. Moments like this reinforce the reality of our fragile lives and the reality of God's awesome power.”

Arroyo said the city has a strong devotion to Our Lady of Prompt Succor, who is patroness of both New Orleans and Louisiana. Before the storm hit, he said, representatives of the Archdiocese of New Orleans appealed to people via emergency radio to pray to Our Lady of Prompt Succor and to say the Rosary.

The sisters whose order introduced Our Lady of Prompt Succor to New Orleans, fared well during Katrina. Twelve members of the Ursuline Nuns (Roman Union) survived the storm by remaining in the buildings that house their convent, the Ursuline Academy of New Orleans and the National Shrine of Our Lady of Prompt Succor. They also took in 25 other people who needed shelter.

Sister Deana Walker of Crystal City, Mo., provincial secretary of the order, said she received a phone call Aug. 30 from the brother of one of the New Orleans sisters saying everyone was fine and that the buildings had some water damage, but no broken windows. The sisters' campus is near Loyola University.

“This is a very old building,” Sister Deana said, “and it's weathered a lot of things before so they probably felt pretty confident staying with it.”

Nine Little Sisters of the Poor, who operate the Sacred Heart Residence for the elderly in Mobile, Ala., also survived Katrina by remaining in their home.

Mother Marcel Joseph McCanless said the building's roof sustained some damage and the home lost about a dozen large trees.

“Other than that and some leaks, thank God, we were all protected,” she said. The home also has been on emergency power, meaning there is no air conditioning and only limited lighting.

Although much of Mobile is flooded, Mother Marcel said the flood waters had not reached the residence, which is sheltering 50 extra people in addition to the 75 residents.

“We didn't even think of evacuation because the worst was supposed to hit New Orleans,” Mother Marcel said. “Our focus was really on our Little Sisters and our dear residents in New Orleans. For that reason, we are just sort of here and weathering it and praying for them more than for ourselves.”

In the wake of the hurricane, the Internet has been abuzz with articles about how Katrina is a sign that more destruction is imminent if people don't repent

Arroyo, whose book about Mother Angelica was launched this month, said many people are trying to draw spiritual messages from Hurricane Katrina.

“That is beyond me,” he said. “I think there are smaller lessons we have to draw from and ultimately for me, it's ‘What are the important things in life?’ Is it my home and my bedroom and my nice new furniture, my prized book collection, the CD collection I've spent 30 years building? Or is it my children, my family, my wife?”

Judy Roberts writes from Graytown, Ohio.

Catholics Reach Out

New Orleans is under water, but in addition to Louisiana, Mississipi, Alabama and Florida have all been declared federal disaster areas by President Bush. Aid is urgently needed for food, water and clothing. Catholic agencies have already begun helping.

Catholic Charities USA

2005 Hurricane Relief Fund

PO Box 25168

Alexandria, VA 22313-9788


(800) 919-9338

Based on past disasters, possible long-term services that Catholic Charities may provide include temporary and permanent housing, direct assistance beyond food and water to get people back into their homes, job placement counseling, and medical and prescription drug assistance. In fact, Catholic Charities agencies in Florida are still providing services to help people recover from last year's devastating hurricanes.

Says Catholic Relief Services: “Though our mission is overseas, our hearts and prayers are with those in the United States devastated by Hurricane Katrina. Learn how to help through our sister organization, Catholic Charities.”

Knights of Columbus

Charities USA, Inc.

Gift Processing Center

PO Box 9028

Pittsfield, MA 01202-9028

Attention: Hurricane KATRINA Relief


The day after Katrina hit, the Knights of Columbus made their initial gift of $40,000 in aid.

There are nearly 50,000 Knights in the tri-state area devastated by Katrina. In addition, more than 45,000 live in Florida, where Katrina delivered its initial blow before growing into a Category 5 hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico.

One hundred percent of contributions will go directly to hurricane relief, and all donations to Knights of Columbus USA are tax-deductible.

The Knights of Columbus has provided significant relief for other recent disasters, providing more than $500,000 to victims of the Asian tsunami and $1 million for families of victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Catholic World Mission

Katrina Relief

33 Rossotto Drive

Hamden, CT 06514

(203) 230 3802


The not-for-profit international relief organization plans to provide material and spiritual aid in the aftermath of Hurrican Katrina. Two Legionary priests are in the Houston Astrodome ministering to those affected by the disaster. They will help coordinate Catholic World Mission efforts as the group puts resources at the disposal of local bishops for whatever needs meet the bishops' priorities.