By GRETCHEN KEISER, Staff Writer | Published August 3, 2006
In a few weeks the Catholic community of the Atlanta Archdiocese will have a new opportunity to help Catholics in the neighboring dioceses of Biloxi, Miss., and New Orleans make progress in rebuilding some of their many devastated churches, parish buildings and Catholic schools.
A national collection for the two dioceses will be held in all parishes on the weekend of Aug. 19-20 or in early September. The collection funds are designated specifically for rebuilding church facilities with 60 percent going to the New Orleans Archdiocese and 40 percent to the Biloxi Diocese. Between the two dioceses there is an estimated $190 million in damage to church structures.
“It is the tradition in the Catholic Church that we take care of the church family. This is part of our extended family,” said Joseph Krygiel, Secretary for Catholic Charities of Atlanta. “We see how much the need is. We need to share our resources as much as we can to rebuild the Catholic Church in this part of the country.”
Krygiel, who has taken part in a rebuilding trip to the region, said the magnitude of rebuilding needed is on a scale with post-World War II reconstruction in Europe. Catholic Charities USA has estimated the process as a five to 10-year timeline.
“The Catholic Church along with others in the United States has responded very generously to the immediate needs of the hurricane evacuees with direct gifts of financial assistance, through works of service to affected communities and evacuees, and other acts of Christian charity. But more help is desperately needed, and it is estimated that follow-up assistance and rebuilding of affected communities could take from five to 10 years,” Krygiel said. “It is imperative that all of us accept this responsibility to again unselfishly help our Catholic brothers and sisters who have lost so much by the destruction of their parish communities.”
The first national collection immediately after Hurricane Katrina raised $1.252 million in the Archdiocese of Atlanta, according to Krygiel.
That became part of the more than $130 million raised nationally, the bulk of it designated for the humanitarian needs of those who lost so much in the fury of the storms.
Additionally, many archdiocesan parishes and ministries have directly helped particular parishes and individuals in the Gulf Coast and New Orleans and have reached out to evacuees in Georgia.
As approximately 40,000 Katrina evacuees resettled in Georgia, Catholic Charities of Atlanta became one of the primary nonprofit agencies assisting them.
The agency has served over 6,300 families since Katrina, assisting them with resettlement issues and long-term needs, and is still offering comprehensive services to several thousand families, while an estimated 200 calls a day come in from hurricane evacuees who need immediate assistance.
“It has been non-stop since September. Our services have transformed with the needs of the evacuees,” said Lauren Pelascini, a Jesuit volunteer who has been a caseworker for Katrina evacuees in Atlanta for the past 11 months.
Creating a new Emergency Assistance Program and adding five new staff positions in 2005, Catholic Charities of Atlanta now has an emergency assistance manager, three full-time case managers, an administrative assistant and a part-time receptionist dedicated to serving Katrina evacuees. They also have three volunteers assisting with setting appointments, helping clients fill out paperwork and with office work and telephone calls.
Since March they have been set up in Grace United Methodist Church in Atlanta as part of a centralized service area for evacuees.
Catholic Charities USA has given grants totaling $760,000 to Catholic Charities of Atlanta so far to provide help to hurricane evacuees. With additional funds from the United Way and other sources, Catholic Charities of Atlanta has received about $1 million in hurricane-related grants, Krygiel said.
As of July 1, 2006, $546,451 of Catholic Charities USA grant money had been dispersed to help evacuees by the Atlanta Catholic agency.
About 82 percent of that amount was spent to help pay for rent or mortgage payments for those who relocated to this area. The agency dispersed $448,801 in housing funds since last September, helping an estimated 8,900 people. Among them were many families and senior citizens. An estimated 2,500 children and 2,200 senior citizens were among those helped by these efforts to pay for part of a month’s rent or part of a mortgage payment.
Catholic Charities also dispersed $53,912 to help pay for transportation and moving costs for these families, $14,881 toward their utility bills, $10,000 to assist with mental health care for over 100 adults suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, and $2,700 for food.
Staff members served as a link between some 600 families in the archdiocese who donated furniture to more than 100 families affected by Katrina and helped provide clothing to about 250 adults and children.
Most recently, Catholic Charities of Atlanta has assisted 421 families evacuated after Katrina to go through the process of qualifying for and moving into a Fannie Mae home in the metropolitan area. Under this program a Fannie Mae home that has gone into foreclosure is made available for 18 months of free housing to eligible evacuee families with the hope they will purchase it at the end of the time period. Fannie Mae selected agencies, including Catholic Charities of Atlanta, to represent families in the program.
Catholic Charities will provide housing counseling for each family and acts as an advocate on their behalf with FEMA.
“Our agency has handled the most cases nationally,” Pelascini said. “The numbers (of evacuees) here and our capacity and our efficiency has allowed us to take on more families.”
Unfortunately, the number of Fannie Mae available properties in metro Atlanta has now decreased so fewer families can be placed. Fannie Mae appointments are already scheduled into September, while general appointments with Catholic Charities Atlanta caseworkers are booked through the end of August.
“The most overwhelming need is in terms of reestablishing a normal household,” she said. “Once a house and a home can be reestablished with beds for the children … they have more confidence, more motivation. … Employment is probably the next thing. A lot of people are highly qualified but unable to find positions to fit into.”
Almost a year has elapsed and there is progress, but there is a long way to go.
“I feel like people have learned how to adjust,” Pelascini said. “I don’t think the rest of us would consider it normal. There is no disposable income at all, none whatsoever. There is no back-to-school shoes or uniforms.”
“The mental health condition has improved,” she continued, “but I had a client last Wednesday break down with me and she was holding onto all that trauma for a full year. … Their lives revolve around that disaster.”
“The challenge is immense. It is really the responsibility of the entire community to respond and we are just part of the responding group,” Krygiel said, adding that one silver lining to the disaster has been the coming together of many like-minded nonprofit groups and the deepening of their common work on behalf of those in need.
Catholic Charities of Atlanta was honored by Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin this spring with a Phoenix Award for their work with hurricane evacuees.
“Your generosity is an impeccable example of the everlasting devotion that Atlantans exhibit towards each other during times of crisis,” the inscription says. “The City of Atlanta salutes you for your assistance in providing a triumphant future for those who have been displaced.”
Georgia Bulletin reporters and photographer returned July 27 from a trip to the Diocese of Biloxi, Miss., and the Archdiocese of New Orleans to prepare stories for the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. They described the needs of the Catholic communities there as staggering.
“It was much more overwhelming than I expected, particularly in New Orleans. … I never knew how vast the damage and destruction was. You ride through one community after another, down one street after another, and just see massive destruction. It is pretty unbelievable,” commented Michael Alexander, photographer.
The destruction is not concentrated in one area but is actually over a huge area, he said.
Yet Catholics are determined to get back to their parish for Mass, even if they can’t go home. A deacon he met drives 60 miles to come to his old church on Sunday.
“It just speaks to how much people want to be back with their church community. People would go to any lengths to get back to their church community.”
“I think so many people think it is probably better because it has been one year—and it’s not,” said reporter Erika Anderson. “When you look at everything, so much of it looks like it happened last week and not last year, and that is pretty incredible.”
“These are our neighbors. … It’s not like it is a faraway land. Just to see what they have been through is awesome in the true sense of the word. It did cross racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic lines. It did affect everybody. It is staggering.”
Catholic parishes are vital to people as they try to rebuild their lives, she said. On folding chairs, in stripped buildings, people are coming to Mass.
One parish had just added back a second Sunday Mass “and the church was packed. You really saw how important the church was. … The church is just as much their home as their own home was.”
“There is a long way to go.” However, “the majority of people I met, especially in churches, were very hopeful and optimistic.”
In the Resurrection of Our Lord Church and School in New Orleans “the church and the school were a source of hope for people in that region,” said reporter Priscilla Greear.
“A lot of the church restoration had been done by volunteer groups. Their school is the big project now. … They seem very hopeful about the school opening back up. … It was the only school open in the east part of New Orleans.”