NEW ORLEANS — Louisiana priests that support each other with ongoing camaraderie and spiritual nourishment are now also providing very essential hurricane relief to priests and the parishes they serve in areas that were devastated by recent storm damage.
Hurricane Laura destroyed six churches in the Diocese of Lake Charles, left a dozen others “highly compromised” and did heavy damage to chancery offices. The diocese, in a report posted on its website, said that only one of six Catholic schools reopened Aug. 31, while the others needed at least some repairs before classes could resume. The storm, which slammed southern Louisiana with winds of up to 150 mph in the early hours of Aug. 27, also left a diocesan rectory housing 20 priests, a third of them in active ministry, uninhabitable. Some of the priests were able to relocate to rectories that sustained little or no damage, while others moved into Vianney House, a diocesan residence for people discerning a vocation, the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in central Lake Charles and private homes.
Days later, eight members of a priests’ support group bolted into action to aid their ninth member — Father Jeffrey Starkovich of St. Pius X Church in Ragley.
On Aug. 31, priests from the Archdiocese of New Orleans and the Dioceses of Houma-Thibodaux, Lafayette and Baton Rouge arrived in Ragley, just north of Lake Charles, driving U-Hauls packed with donated water, food, soft drinks, paper goods, diapers, canned goods, ice and gasoline.
The relief help also included hundreds of hot meals — mostly jambalaya and red beans and rice — cooked by the parishioners of Annunciation Parish in Bogalusa, where support group member Father Daniel Brouilette is pastor. Those staples of Cajun cuisine were passed out to more than 1,000 cars lined up for donations.
“It’s simply the gift of the priesthood — people being generous to one another,” said Father Starkovich, the spokesman for the Lake Charles Diocese who was ordained in 2011. “In a very real way, I was moved by the gift of the priesthood, because the priests brought the message to the people, and the people responded. It’s just the beauty of the priesthood.”
Father Jonathan Hemelt, pastor of Our Lady of the Rosary Parish in New Orleans, and Father Bryan Howard, pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Violet, drove their U-Haul trucks 200 miles to Lake Charles, and Father Colin Braud, pastor of Visitation of Our Lady Parish in Marrero, drove his car in the caravan so they could make their way back to New Orleans.
Father Hemelt said what touched him were his memories of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when he was one of thousands of New Orleanians who needed help.
Father Hemelt said “Fifteen years ago, I was in one of those lines waiting for supplies. The amazing thing is the people volunteering are the same people who also lost their own stuff. They are unloading trucks and they are probably in the same position as those coming for help.”
After Laura hit on Aug. 26, the support group members reached out to Father Starkovich and contacted their own parishioners about trying to mount a quick collection campaign. In addition to dropping off supplies, Our Lady of the Rosary parishioners donated about $10,000 in direct financial assistance.
The other support group members are Father Daniel Green, pastor of St. Maria Goretti Church in New Orleans; Father Garrett McIntyre of the Lafayette Diocese; Father Todd Lloyd of the Baton Rouge Diocese and Father Andre Melancon of the Houma-Thibodaux Diocese.
Father Hemelt said he hoped Our Lady of the Rosary and St. Maria Goretti parishes could work together on a plan for long-term support of St. Pius X in Ragley.
Despite being stationed hundreds of miles apart over five dioceses, the support group members meet monthly for a meal and fellowship — the venue rotates — and they also try to vacation together annually, Father Hemelt said.
Hurricane Laura destroyed the St. Pius X office building and religion education classrooms, badly damaged the church roof and damaged the roof of the parish hall. But Father Starkovich celebrated the 8:30 a.m. Mass in the church on Sunday Aug. 30, and 65 people showed up.
“What really touched me is the people are so filled with hope and happiness,” Father Starkovich said. “Today everyone was joyful. We were short on volunteers, and we sent out a text message, and 50 volunteers came to the church in 10 minutes. They all left their own homes, which they were working on, to give food and water and supplies to everyone else.” He said the group planned to work from 12-2 p.m. but ended up helping from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. instead.
In addition to donations from the respective parishes of each support group members, Our Lady of Prompt Succor Parish in Chalmette and St. Luke the Evangelist Parish in Slidell also donated supplies.
“Most of our parishes are talking up collections to help with financial assistance,” Father Hemelt said.
Father Howard noted that as one of his parishioners put it: “After Katrina, we were hit so hard, and help was coming from all over the country. Now it’s our turn to return some of that help and support them.”
“Our diocese helped New Orleans during Katrina,” Father Starkovich said, “and now receiving that gift in return is a beautiful reality.”