By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Staff Writer | Published August 24, 2006
Father Michael Tracey knows intimately that the emotional recovery process for Hurricane Katrina victims involves “the three Ts” of talking, tears and time. For him, it also includes writing.
His creative tool for healing from the muddy Gulf water deluge that has affected his church, rectory, favorite books and life has been to record his reflections in a journal.
The priest began writing columns in 1976 and published a novel a decade ago followed by two spirituality books. His most recent book, about Katrina, is entitled, “She Was No Lady.” A church flyer for the book and Katrina relief notes what appeared on the outdoor sign at his church, Our Lady of the Gulf, the day before the storm: “it is when you lose everything that you are free to do anything.” The book chronicles the Irish-American’s private moments of soul searching and how Katrina challenged his mettle as a priest to resurrect and animate others. In Ireland when the storm hit, he saw a television report during which a news camera zoomed in on the broken clock tower atop his church, a classic brick building with white columns renovated extensively just several months before the storm. The clock said 4:50, and the journalist declared that the hurricane was so bad that time stood still.
Father Tracey came home to this fishing town of about 10,000 to find that Katrina’s “rage” produced six to eight feet of water that shattered the stained-glass windows and flooded through the floors and pews of the church. Gone was two-thirds of the roof that had sheltered the paintings of the apostles on the ceiling. Water blasted the rectory walls, destroying it, and more than a foot of sand remained in the parish hall.
“I decided for my own journey of healing to write a book, trying to make sense of all of it, to help with some kind of healing, on what one can learn … (Katrina) not only cleaned us out, she made a real mess,” the pastor said. He has found that it is important for people to talk about their emotions, whether anger or resentment, from the trauma. “People need time. This is a process. Don’t rush through—give yourself time and space to just let the healing process take place. You don’t put a time limit on it. My book for me was my way to talk about it. By taking time to do it, it helped me learn what is most important and what isn’t.”
Our Lady of the Gulf was originally built in 1855 but was destroyed by fire at the turn of the century and rebuilt in 1908. Hancock is the only county with a Catholic majority in the state, and over half of the businesses were damaged or destroyed, as were thousands of homes.
A year later, Father Tracey said that most members of the congregation remain in Federal Emergency Management Agency trailers as they are rebuilding, waiting for a coveted contractor or insurance money, or saving to buy a new home.
In the past year OLG, with the critical help of volunteer groups nationwide, including groups from All Saints Church in Dunwoody and St. Matthew Church in Winder, have renovated the parish center and main church with new stained-glass windows, hard pine floor and pews donated by a Massachusetts church, and a restored sanctuary area with light blue paint and a picture of Mary and baby Jesus. Estimated damage to the property was $3.1 million, and through insurance they received $2.1 million, said the pastor. Their next focus is building parish offices and a new rectory.
“Every week I let them know the progress,” Father Tracey said. “People need hope. When they knew the building was structurally sound, it was a sigh of relief. It has a very special place in people’s lives.”
The Holy Trinity Elementary School had about $1 million in structural damage plus the loss of all their uninsured contents, which they are fundraising to replace gradually. Our Lady Academy, a girls school for grades seven to 12 that originally opened in 1855, had roughly $1.8 million in insurable structural damage, plus all material losses. Holy Trinity, located next door to OLA and the parish, reopened by Oct. 15 last year, taking in students from the now closed St. Clare’s School. Space is tight with enrollment up to 394 from 276. Across the street St. Stanislaus College, a boarding and day middle and high school founded in 1853, shared resources with OLA last school year day to reopen Nov. 1, but now both are separate again.
In the early months OLA had candlelight staff meetings, stocked up to 100,000 bottles of water and had portable bathrooms on the lawn. This year half of its campus functions with 85 percent of students. One building was demolished, and three more have been reopened. The Stanislaus principal, Brother Ronald Hingle, in an article posted on the school Web site, said that initially, “we weren’t sure we’d ever be able to reopen again. The support we received from our students and their families was overwhelming and helped us decide that we could and would rebuild.”
They all bear the pain of the many harrowing stories, such as that of one OLA youth who lost hold of his grandmother’s hand after which the elderly woman drowned.
Stanislaus had $19.3 million in damage. Every building sustained major damage, and the library and band buildings collapsed into their basements. But it also is overcoming hurdles and this year has 444 students. In fundraising and repair mode, the school has made progress renovating the classroom building, dormitory and a physical education building, among other restoration work.
The sandy yard between the church and schools has flowering white crape myrtles and a canopy of live oaks. One solace for this community has been the shrine of Our Lady of the Woods with a gold crown and blue cape holding baby Jesus that stands surrounded by a lush variety of seaside shrubs. The statue was donated in 1858 by the French founder of the parish, Father Stanislaus Buteux, in gratitude to Mary for protecting him on a perilous voyage on the Atlantic, where his ship arrived at port destitute of mast and sail. The plaster of Paris French statue has survived many storms, and its plaque reads, “the woods have almost disappeared but the little statue stands pure and immaculate in a leafy bower.”
Michael Comar, a parishioner at OLG and the business manager of the New Orleans Catholic newspaper, The Clarion Herald, bought a house in Bay St. Louis three years ago to escape the high crime rate in New Orleans and commuted to work. Sitting in his newspaper office, he recalled his return after Katrina to his home a week after the storm, where he found that the large tubs in which he had packed belongings sealed out the water and the one to two inches of mud in his house.
“That’s all I got out, the rest is gone.” He now lives in a FEMA trailer where he works to repair his home and contracts out some work.
“It’s very slow because there are a limited number of tradesmen and an unlimited number of properties, while his parents’ house nearby was “washed away completely.”
“(My house) is a shell but can be brought back together and is being put back. To come up that high it’s incredible to think about. I’m 25 feet above sea level,” he said, noting that they had an advantage over those in New Orleans as here the water surged but then receded.
“In New Orleans there are places where there is no one, neighborhoods which are still unsafe to be in because of hazardous conditions and because of the lack of city services—sewage, electricity, police and fire—and you don’t really have that on the coast. People are back in. On the coast are a lot are do-it-yourselfers, who know how to do things,” he explained. In Bay St. Louis “they don’t want to lose what they had. It’s a very special place.”
The second thing he did was to go to Our Lady of the Gulf, where the doors were blown open and the remaining pews were in the front of the church. Statues were overturned, and the floor was “blown open.”
“I just couldn’t believe. I didn’t see how it could come back.” Mass was held outside the church, where discombobulated parishioners embraced friends who they hadn’t seen since the storm and inquired about others. They gathered folding chairs from around the property for the worship service, scraping off the mud. Eventually over 50 people trickled in. It was a celebration of survival. “You could see people emerging from here and there, almost like from bombed out ruins … Everybody was completely shell shocked, dazed,” he recalled. But as the Mass started “there was a feeling of community, like something was there to go back to. You could sense it in the crowd, in an extremely sad but sublime moment…”
And as they began to sing, “I knew somehow things were going to be OK. People were joyous and crying at the same time.” In the service they sang “Be Not Afraid,” “which I thought was very appropriate.” Father Tracey took pictures from behind the altar. Comar developed a profound sense of the value for daily life and his relationships, as well as for his work at the newspaper, as many have expressed gratitude for the vital information it has provided.
“People were so glad to see us after the storm. For many people we were the only source of information they had. We were delving into areas with no TV, electricity, especially those first months after the storm,” he recounted. About half the staff was assembled, and an office was set up initially in Baton Rouge.
His parents’ waterfront church, St. Clare’s in Waveland, which has a sign in its yard amidst remnants of the former church reading, “Katrina was big but God is bigger,” is now meeting in a Quonset hut, or large enclosed tent, donated by a man from Alaska who inquired about how he could help out. Other donated huts house volunteers. Up the road in Long Beach, the modern St. Thomas the Apostle Parish is the open air remnants of a church with brick walls ripped open and showing twisted steel beams of the frame. Nearby in Pass Christian, the nation’s second oldest yacht club meets in a double wide trailer. Rows of houses, from one large, castle-like structure to a number of antebellum homes, have collapsed roofs and second floors and entire walls completely blown out, and restaurants and shopping areas along the Biloxi waterfront, once considered “the Riviera of the South,” are empty and abandoned.
Comar said, “I never lost it completely.” But “like everybody who has been through it, when you forget something or get confused or muddled, it’s a Katrina brain. You get drained of energy and emotional resources. You sort of muddle through. You sort of walk around in a fog sometimes. There’s so much to do. Your routine and familiarity is gone,” he continued. And he now sees with new eyes and hears with new ears, including at Mass.
“I still play golf with people. We enjoy each other more and my church—it’s a wonderful thing to see people every week.”
A few miles farther away from the sea is St. Rose Church, with a cemetery beside it and a painting of a dark-skinned Jesus rising before a live oak tree behind its altar. The week after the storm the church became a distribution center and through the year has housed and coordinated volunteers to help in the area, all at its closed school across the street. As of August they had assisted installing dry wall for 30 homes, repairing roofs at 55 homes, distributing $42,000 in major appliances and over $55,000 in financial assistance and other support, and partnering with Catholic Charities USA and Hands on Gulf Coast and other nonprofits.
Father Tracey happily reported that Our Lady of the Gulf had its 22nd annual crab-fest and this year sold nearly 3,000 pounds to make the most money ever. The church also has set up a Web site (www.myregistry.com/katrina) that lists items people need to rebuild their homes. Interested individuals can purchase an item for a family affected by Katrina and have it shipped directly to them. Their Web site, www.olgv.org, lists ways people can volunteer to help the Bay St. Louis and surrounding areas. Father Tracey said that the parish size shrank from 1,500 to 600 families, as many older persons “don’t want to go through the hassle of trying to rebuild. It’s just too overwhelming.” Since moving back into the main church at Easter, they’ve had several baptisms and weddings.
Attorney E. Bragg Williams is a parishioner who is especially grateful for the support of Atlanta volunteers, who jumpstarted parish reconstruction efforts. Donning a baseball cap, red shirt with a lobster crest, and sandals as he walked around the grounds in the muggy hot air, he recounted their post-Katrina saga and gave an overview of the Catholic history of the Bay St. Louis, founded in 1699. He evacuated to a friend’s house in Sandy Springs and attended All Saints Church in Dunwoody where he made a plea for help for his stunned parish and got a strong response, led by Dan Wilkens who spearheaded renovations of the parish hall and other projects and orchestrated the donation of a bus. All Saints members donated power washer equipment, tools and many other essential supplies.
Williams said that many parish families did not live in flood zones and did not have insurance policies with exclusions for flood damage, and because houses were flooded they won’t cover for wind damage.
“That’s a big, big problem because insurance companies are saying water came in first, the wind versus water dispute is ongoing and will be for years,” he mentioned, adding that only some can qualify for government grant money to rebuild. Many are in limbo because they can’t afford to leave.
He credited Jesus’ command to feed his sheep as motivating him to do what he can, which includes singing in the contemporary music group at church.
“When I talked to the group at All Saints, I told them the church is such a strong influence in Hancock County,” he recalled. “Our Lady of the Gulf is the heart and soul of Catholicism on the western coast of the Gulf.”
The Mississippi native is moved by the outpouring of support from people of many faiths from Atlanta to Wisconsin to Ohio. “We each do our own thing. Mine is music ministry, others’ is carpentry. Others’ is going to the sick and poor,” he said, pausing with emotion. “We’re back inside, and 95 percent of the (church) structure is back but if it’s washed away tomorrow, we’ll build up again. It’s just part of our faith community.”