By GEORGIA BULLETIN STAFF | Published October 1, 2020
LAKE CHARLES, La.—Hurricane Laura destroyed six of 39 parishes in the Diocese of Lake Charles, causing other devastation to this Louisiana Catholic community that continues to clean up.
Atlantans Joseph Fiorentino and Thomas Gaines, first-year theology students attending Notre Dame Seminary, New Orleans, joined a crew of other seminarians learning pastoral skills and putting to practice the corporal and spiritual works of mercy as they cleaned up damaged neighborhoods and prayed with people in their wrecked homes.
The catastrophic Category 4 storm landed Aug. 27 in western Louisiana as one of the strongest to hit the country. Some 880,000 people in the region were left without power and tens of thousands had only undrinkable water.
The goal of the seminary trip was more than just assisting in picking up debris from yards. Instead, it was about giving people hope.
Father Joseph Krafft, seminary director of pastoral formation, said, “The seminarians did not go to Lake Charles as a humanitarian help group, rather they went as missionaries, proclaiming God’s love and accompaniment with those who suffer.”
Learning in the seminary classroom is more theoretical and the mission experience is practical, he said. Seminarians come to understand the Catholic Church is a missionary church and every baptized person is a missionary, sent to proclaim the Good News, Father Krafft said.
“They need more people to remind them of God’s love and to help them practice the virtue of hope, and they need more people to help them with recovery,” he said.
The recovery of physical destruction continues.
The American Red Cross recently reported providing 15,700 people with a safe place to stay in emergency lodgings, 1.2 million meals and snacks and distributed more than 168,600 relief items and cleaning supplies.
Bishop Glen J. Provost wrote in a recent note about the survival of the local Shrine of Our Lady Star of the Sea, which commemorates previous hurricanes.
“Although in the bull’s eye of the storm, the statue still stands, seemingly untouched. It is miraculous! Our Lady is reminding us of her faithful presence and God’s abiding care for us,” he wrote.
Notre Dame seminary usually takes the first-year students on a mission trip. Lake Charles is about a two-hour drive from the New Orleans campus.
Notre Dame seminarians took two trips in September to assist in the recovery. The Notre Dame Seminary Catholic Relief was organized to assist in the hurricane aftermath.
The Atlanta seminarians spent several days in the hard-hit community, from helping alongside locals to making sure families got necessary supplies to visiting people in their homes. They also organized a eucharistic procession.
Joseph Fiorentino, 25, said he was touched by neighbors looking out for each other. He remembered a neighborhood where only one family had the ability to cook, so they made meals for 50.
Beyond material needs, people seemed to be comforted just to talk to others, to help tell their story, he said. People would open up and talk about their situations, he said.
Fiorentino grew up attending St. Monica Church, Duluth.
Thomas Gaines, 25, grew up in south Georgia and discerned his vocation to the priesthood while attending the Catholic Center at Georgia Tech. The residents of the diocese impressed him by ignoring personal issues to help. One man faced people threatening to rob his house but he kept coming back to volunteer with the local Catholic Charities, Gaines said. That wasn’t uncommon because for many, their priority was helping others, he said.
The two men also said the experience broadened their understanding of the priesthood, putting others’ needs ahead of their own and making sure to be with those going through hard times.
Alan Salazar contributed to this story.