By ERIKA ANDERSON, Staff Writer | Published August 24, 2006
Nearly a year after Hurricane Katrina left its heavy footprint on New Orleans, residents are finding a new sense of normalcy.
Some are rebuilding while others have found new homes. But through it all, they have turned to their faith and their parish families for support.
At St. Maria Goretti Parish in the heavily damaged New Orleans East neighborhood, parishioners attend Sunday Mass in the former parish hall. Floodwaters ravaged the building leaving the congregation now to sit on plastic chairs, their feet resting on a stripped concrete floor. In late July, a second Sunday Mass was added to accommodate parishioners that are beginning to return to the neighborhood. Prior to Katrina, the church was a vibrant and diverse community with two daily and seven weekend Masses to serve the 3,400 families who called St. Maria Goretti their home.
Msgr. Earl Gauthreaux has been the pastor of St. Maria Goretti for over 38 years. As he walks through the former church, currently undergoing construction, he talks of the importance of the parish to the community.
“The church is the anchor. If we come back, if we rebuild, then they will come back. We’re already seeing that happen,” he said. “The church is the way to keep people connected.”
In the days immediately following the hurricane, St. Maria Goretti was one of the very first buildings in the area to be functional, Msgr. Gauthreaux said.
“This was a place for people to network,” he said, adding that they had their first post-Katrina Mass on the first Sunday in November.
“The people here are highly motivated. I think we’re in good shape,” he said.
On Sunday, July 23, Deacon Terrel Broussard offered the homily at the 11 a.m. Mass. He encouraged parishioners to turn to the Lord for much needed respite.
“Those of us who have been engaged in efforts post-Katrina, we need a break,” he said. “If we don’t set ourselves apart, we will fall apart. There is only so much we can do. We need to take our families off to the side to be with Jesus Christ. Our nerves are frayed. We need to take time at least once a day to visit with the Lord.”
After Mass, parishioners greeted each other with hugs and inquiries into each other’s situations.
Sharon Moret-Claude has been a parishioner at St. Maria Goretti for over 18 years. She lives just eight blocks from the church. Over five and a half feet of water flooded her home during Katrina, she said. As she has put her life and home back together, she said, she has turned to her parish for support.
“It gives you a sense of normalcy, a sense of hope. Just to see your neighbors means a lot,” she said.
Dwight August has attended St. Maria Goretti for most of his life. His own home was destroyed by over eight feet of floodwater, but he said it was also hard to be without his parish while living in Baton Rouge following Katrina.
“Right after the storm, I missed not going to church,” he said. “It’s a nice, diverse parish. There’s a little bit of everybody here—rich, poor, black, white—everybody. It’s like a big family.”
Earl Grant wears a three-piece suit to Mass. His voice is still heavy with emotion as he talks of his experience during Hurricane Katrina. He was rescued from his home after eight days of living on his second floor. He stayed during the hurricane because, as a nurse, he thought he might be needed.
“I believe that the Good Lord gave everybody messages (through Katrina). He wanted us to love our families and our neighbors. He wanted us to turn to him,” he said. “God is asking everyone to move closer to him and closer to each other.”
“Now you see people really coming together,” he said. “Katrina stripped away what the world put upon us and showed us true love. Now you see other people not just as men and women, but as brothers and sisters.”
New Orleans auxiliary Bishop Roger Morin’s home on South Carrollton Avenue survived the hurricane but was later burned to the ground. Though people have been devastated by the storm and its aftermath, he said, he has been inspired by their faith.
“You just see these grace-filled moments where you see people are fully alive. They are more active; they are helping others. They are really experiencing God in a new way,” he said. “We are living through this epic part of history, yet the optimism is really overwhelming.”
“When people inquire as to how you are, they really want to know,” Bishop Morin added. “The degree of resiliency is really just amazing and an inspiration. I continue to be inspired by the people every day.”
Back at St. Maria Goretti, Msgr. Gauthreaux said that they have now had a number of babies baptized. After the July 23 Mass, he spoke with a couple, giving them marriage preparation.
“So life goes on, doesn’t it?” Msgr. Gauthreaux said with a smile.