Published September 15, 2005
As 76-year-old Patricia Farrell lay on her back “like Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel” in the attic of her one-story New Orleans home with two flashlights, a radio and some tools, she prayed to God for her life and thought often of her beloved pastor Father Mike.
She had seen Father Michael Joseph Vinh Nguyen the day before at Sunday Mass Aug. 28 at the Church of the Resurrection of Our Lord, where she is a founding member and the sacristan. As Hurricane Katrina approached the Gulf with her deadly wrath, Farrell told her pastor she was determined to stay in her home, having lived through more hurricanes than she could count. Father Michael Joseph headed up to Atlanta to be with his brother, Father Dung Nguyen, and other family members.
Farrell, whose four children live out-of-state, spoke with her son, Paul, in Oklahoma the next day at 7 a.m.
“He said, ‘Are you OK? I’m going to call you every hour. I love you mom,’” she recalled. A few hours later the phone went dead.
“I’m one of those who didn’t leave,” she said. “Dumb, dumb, dumb … I said no, I’m going to stay with the house. It’s just a hurricane. Hurricanes come, we’re prone to them.”
But by about 10 a.m. Aug. 29 Farrell looked out her kitchen window and saw water seeping under the fence from her neighbor’s yard. When she went to the front hall it was seeping under the door. Towels she laid out were quickly soaked. As the water began rising she got out a ladder to climb up to the attic with supplies in hand. She was alone, but God was with her.
“The only thing that saved me was my faith in God, the Blessed Mother, and my guardian angel,” she said. “I prayed every day—every day. I thought about Father Mike and I prayed for him.”
Through the night, she stayed there without food and listened to her radio, until she heard a commentator say that those in their attics were lying in their coffins. She didn’t panic, but the spirited, five-foot-two great-grandmother, who doesn’t swim, was now in survival mode and knew that she had to get on the roof. “I said, ‘I can’t stay here. I have no water or food.’”
She came down the ladder about 5 a.m. and waded through the house—and around floating appliances—with water up to her neck. She dropped her wallet but was unable to retrieve it in the filthy grey water. Using her ladder she climbed up on her roof where she waited for a helicopter rescue.
Later that morning the son of a neighbor, who had stayed behind because of back problems, swam over and gave her a life jacket, which she put on and, clinging to his back, she went to the neighbor’s two-story house. She stayed there Aug. 30 and 31 on the second story. Eventually, they took the neighbor’s boat, after some gas was found, to a trailer. Then, packed like sardines, they went to a so-called refuge: the convention center.
She stayed for two nights outside the center where conditions were “horrendous.” There were dead bodies, no bathroom facilities and piles of excrement. She witnessed a “tremendous” amount of looting. She didn’t eat anything but lay on a strip of a rug, baking in the sun.
After two days there she eagerly boarded a bus, which took evacuees to a military base in Arkansas, and she then traveled on to her son’s home near Lawton, Okla., where she’ll now live. She was able to call her son on the road, for the first time. He rejoiced, having thought she had died.
At one point the bus stopped at a relief site where there was ice and water and clothes were laid out in piles for men, women and children.
“There was no charge for it, which was beautiful,” Farrell said. “It was a blessing” after the four days she spent wearing the same soiled shirt and shorts.
A few days later she called Father Michael Joseph to tell him what had happened. She is heartbroken to leave her pastor with a “heart of gold” and Resurrection Church, which she helped found 42 years ago, and the region in which she’s lived her entire life, but she knows it’s now time to live with her son and daughter-in-law in Oklahoma.
“I auditioned for the survivor role once, but I’m not going to try it a second time,” she said. “All my life went up in water, but, as Father said, God is good, and I’m going to let Him prove it.”
She’s confident that Father Michael Joseph will be able to restore both the buildings and the spirit of her parish community. She recalled how he even used to cut the grass at the church, and when he went out of town, he’d leave the schedule for priests celebrating Mass with her and would always call to check how things went.
“He’s a hard-working priest, but he’s very compassionate and gentle and he loves his church and community. He’s got a great sense of caring and a beautiful smile,” she said. “I know he’s going back and will rebuild. He will make it happen I guarantee it … but they’ve got an awful lot of work to do.”
Farrell’s voice grew shaky as she recalled her pastor’s kindness and the way he celebrates Mass.
“I’ll miss him so much,” she said. But “if he can adjust and make it, so can I.”