By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Staff Writer | Published December 15, 2005
A mission team of nearly 100 men from St. Peter Chanel Church began awakening aboard two buses after their overnight drive Nov. 18-19 to New Orleans on the eve of the solemnity of Christ the King, ready for a whirlwind day of hard labor for their neighbors in need.
As they pulled into an empty middle-class neighborhood of ranch homes, they saw boarded-up gas stations and fast food restaurants and temporary stop signs by powerless traffic lights. Some homes were roofless, and signs in yards advertised cleaning services, flood insurance and roof repair, while streets were lined with damaged cars and piles of furniture and other debris. Zeros marked some homes, which had indicated to rescuers during its disaster relief efforts that nobody was left inside.
By around 7:30 a.m. the men had arrived at their destination: the Church of the Resurrection of Our Lord and its parochial school.
The campus is located on the east side of New Orleans between I-10 and Lake Pontchartrain. George Wilson, stewardship coordinator at St. Peter Chanel, who helped parishioner John Sharkey, Ph.D., plan the mission trip, recalled the look on pastor Father Michael Joseph Vinh Nguyen’s face when they reached the church, a multicultural congregation of about 1,700 families including whites, blacks and Asians.
“We had to give these folks a ray of hope, and I think everyone got a ray of hope as well. What a beautiful experience it was for everyone there, and Father Michael was really joyful about the showing of men,” Wilson said. “We were 100 men doing God’s work, and they were really trying to be the hands of the Lord … There had been so much devastation.”
St. Peter Chanel is twinning with Resurrection Church and is one of several churches around the Atlanta Archdiocese working in partnership with a parish on the Gulf Coast damaged by Hurricane Katrina. According to a Catholic Charities report, other churches involved in various forms of sponsorship of Gulf parishes include St. Jude the Apostle Church and Holy Cross Church in Atlanta, All Saints Church in Dunwoody, St. Ann Church and St. Joseph Church in Marietta, and St. Matthew Church in Winder. About 55 Atlanta archdiocesan churches are involved in some evacuee support.
New Orleans Archbishop Alfred Hughes recently said more than 120 parishes from other parts of the country have “twinned” with local parishes or schools to help them rebuild and that nearly 100 of the archdiocese’s 142 parishes and missions are celebrating Mass at least weekly, and 66 Catholic schools have reopened.
Pastor Father Frank McNamee said that St. Peter Chanel has also been involved at home in assisting over 100 families, through North Fulton Charities, with needs such as furniture and clothes. At Roswell Nursing Home, parishioners visit weekly to bring the Eucharist to some of the roughly 25 evacuees. They will also provide them with gifts this Christmas. Queen of Angels School, located on the Roswell church campus, has also held fundraisers for Resurrection School.
This mission team was assembled after Sharkey called his friend, Father Nguyen. The priest told him that they had removed most of the debris but couldn’t get all the sheetrock and tile removed. Wilson and Sharkey then spoke at Masses the next week about the plight of Father Nguyen, who knows some parishioners through his brother, Father Dung Nguyen, a priest in Atlanta. They hoped to round up about 50 men, but 96 came forward, including several who are usually not ones to volunteer.
“We were very surprised,” Sharkey said.
As a core group quickly planned, Lowe’s and various businesses agreed to sell at cost, loan or donate various items including respirators, safety goggles, work suits, and heavy moving equipment. Maureen Penniman, whose husband, Graham, participated, supplied breakfast through Catered Tastes. Parishioner Dr. William Ramirez administered tetanus shots.
Parochial vicar Father John Shramko also participated. As Father McNamee contemplated sending forth the 96 men without their wives, he joked, “That’s why I sent Father Shramko—to supervise.”
Father McNamee celebrated Friday evening Mass two weeks later at St. Peter Chanel before the men boarded the buses for the trip. The workboot-clad men arrived there about 7:30 a.m. and quickly got to work hauling out doors, hacking at sheetrock walls to leave only the stud wood and steel frames, amidst dust, fiberglass and mold.
“We were planning on gutting four buildings and … ended up gutting nine buildings. We were all amazed,” Sharkey reported.
He explained that while parts of New Orleans were relatively unaffected, such as Loyola University, where his daughter will begin in January, other sections like this one were heavily flooded. They were saddened to learn that the Resurrection buildings, which had just last year undergone an extensive renovation before Katrina, sat some 30 days in five to seven feet of water. Everything that was below seven feet, from filing cabinets to new pews and computers, was gone. In one school classroom a Mexican flag and donkey, star and other piñatas still hung from the ceiling.
Wilson recalled that during the renovation of the main church a fresh coat of paint had been applied over the lines: “He died for us, He rose for us, He waits for us.” When the Roswell men entered the church, however, they were inspired to read those words as the top coat had been washed away without any streaking.
“It was a message,” said Wilson. “It looked like it was painted yesterday.”
For lunch the workers enjoyed jambalaya made by parishioners. Around noon, the water system that had been down since the storm “miraculously” came on, albeit at very low pressure, and they had running water—and working toilets, Wilson added.
At the end of the day parishioners still in Louisiana began to arrive on the parish grounds for the first Mass since Hurricane Katrina. The pews were gone, the floor was bare, and there were no lights or power. All that remained were the altar, tabernacle, ambo and high altar. The sun was setting, and the cavernous interior of the church began to grow dim. Two candles on the altar flickered.
Father Nguyen alluded to the days when early Christians gathered in the catacombs for worship and prayer. Volunteer Desmond Drummer described in a trip reflection how the bleak ambience of the worship space poignantly served as a conduit for the message of the solemnity of the Lord and how the reading of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians stated the true foundation of hope, that Christ was raised from the dead so that in the end “God may be all in all.”
“How so very relevant the readings were for that community of faith at Resurrection of Our Lord Parish, who with us and their pastor welled with tears as we considered the deep meaning of the risen Christ being our true king and the bishop of our souls,” he wrote. “The kingdom of Our Lord is immaterial—and sometimes it takes circumstances like these to truly drive that point home. In that compromised church structure, I experienced one of the most spiritually meaningful Masses ever. In the ruins, we all knew without a doubt that Our Lord, Jesus, was king of our souls.”
He also noted that St. Paul wrote that the faithful should rejoice and hope in God even in suffering.
“We know that God is working with us and, through all things, is drawing us ever closer so that our hopes are fixed on God and God alone. In a society where the collective ego runs at a constant high, the reign of Our Lord is made very plain in times like these,” continued Drummer.
Sharkey said that the men viewed it purely as a work trip, but when community members came for the Mass, the deeper meaning “hit home” of living in solidarity with people in need.
“A lot of the guys in there were crying. It turned out to be a very spiritually renewing trip for a lot of guys,” he continued. “The community here is very much behind that church and school to let that community act as a center for rebuilding” for the whole area.
Joe Krygiel, Secretary for Catholic Charities in Atlanta, also volunteered and found inspiration for his work with evacuees back in Atlanta. He was given new insight into the level of devastation as he works to organize parish sponsorship and other support for some of the 5,000 evacuated households in Atlanta moving out of hotels and motels by February.
“It was incredible damage—the flood water and stench,” he said. “Everything had to be ripped out of the church and school. That part of New Orleans is completely uninhabited, and there is no power and they don’t expect it on until the beginning of the year.”
Dr. Si Nguyen, principal of Resurrection grade school, said school families are scattered around the country now and estimated that he’s only been in touch with about 30 percent of them. While looting and shooting reports reveal the worst part of humanity, “what I saw was 100 men or so who came down out of the goodness of their hearts to help us. It really is to me the epitome of goodness and kindness in humanity that you did not see in the national media in what was portrayed in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. It really touched my heart because they didn’t have to, but they did.”
The New Orleans church and school are expected to learn from the New Orleans Archdiocese by the beginning of the new year more details about reopening plans, but plans proposed by their deanery are for the school to open for the 2006-07 year and to become a regional school. Si Nguyen said they are waiting to start purchasing rebuilding materials and to begin rewiring buildings until they receive official instructions.
Father Nguyen, who fled in 1975 to the United States from Vietnam as a refugee, said they are now at the final stage of cleanup and remain hopeful that the community will again rise up, although many parishioners lost everything, as did the church.
The SPC team was “a visible sign of hope, of making a sacrifice, contributing their time and … best work in one day. It meant a lot for me,” he said.
“I have begun cleaning work with the hope that we will be ready, be prepared. When the time comes we can rebuild and be up again … the community of faith has been there and is still alive and will come to life again,” he continued.
As fall leaves dry up but new ones grow in the spring, “I have that image about the Resurrection. There’s a reason the Lord died and rose for us, and He will raise us, even though this was a terrible experience.”
Once he knows more, Father McNamee plans to meet with Father Nguyen and set goals for rebuilding.
“We’re willing to help with whatever we can, but at this time we’re waiting.”
As pastor he was pleased by the parish’s response.
“You have your regulars. We had guys that got involved who wouldn’t usually get involved (as well) and who were deeply touched (by the trip) and by Father Michael—and very impressed that Father Shramko worked.”
Wilson and others are indeed eager to return.
“Every man I’ve run into from that trip keeps saying to me ‘When are we going back?’… It was a great experience,” he said. “I felt really very proud to be part of St. Peter Chanel and that group of men who went down there. I felt I was blessed, and I feel it was a spiritual and emotional gift to all of us. It was kind of what being Catholic is all about.”