A faithful presence in New Orleans
As Hurricane Ida approached New Orleans the weekend of Aug. 28-29, the friars at St. Mary of the Angels Parish were “waiting, watching and praying,” said Fr. Joe Hund, pastor.
New Orleans Archbishop Gregory M. Aymond had given approval for churches in the voluntary evacuation area, such as St. Mary of the Angels, to hold services as usual, so the friars celebrated the parish’s regular Saturday evening and Sunday morning Masses.
Fraternity, faith and community also played a role in their decision to ride out the storm. “We sat down and made the decision to stay as a community. We were either going to stay together or leave together,” Fr. Joe said of himself, along with Brothers Juniper Crouch and Daniel Barrett, pastoral associates.
Most of all, he emphasized, they chose to stay for the people of the parish and surrounding neighborhood. “We wanted to be here to open the school as a shelter for people, to be part of the relief efforts, to serve the community,” Fr. Joe emphasized.
The faithful presence of the friars goes back to 1925 when then-Archbishop John W. Shaw invited the Franciscans from Cincinnati to assume care of a proposed parish behind Claiborne Street in downtown New Orleans and Our Lady of Good Harbor in Buras, La. The first Mass at the new parish was celebrated in a three-room house serving as a temporary church on Aug. 2, 1925, the feast of Our Lady of the Angels. Over the years, the friars’ leadership and the faith and dedication of parishioners saw the parish through cultural and economic changes, with St. Mary of the Angels continuing to be a beacon of hope and stability in the neighborhood.
When Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in 2005 and floodwaters engulfed the Ninth Ward, Fr. Bart Pax, pastor, and fellow friars sheltered nearly 100 neighbors in the parish school building. Months after the water receded, while he was also waging a quiet battle against cancer, Fr. Bart kept a one-man vigil in the parish, coordinating the rebuilding and reopening of St. Mary of the Angels.
“Because of the friars that came before us, there is a deep respect for the Franciscans here, along with a strong sense of family and a spirit of cooperation that continues to be nurtured,” Fr. Joe said.
The friars and parish community responded to Hurricane Ida’s aftermath with that spirit of family, cooperation and service to others. When Fr. Joe checked in on Aug. 31, the entire city of New Orleans was still without electricity, and local officials reported it could be several weeks before power was restored. The friars were actively engaged in cleanup, mopping in the church, school and friary. Water damage wasn’t extensive, but there still some due to the shingles being blown off parish buildings. Many neighborhood residents weren’t as fortunate, Fr. Joe said, losing their roofs completely.
The late summer heat and humidity were a challenge amid the lack of power. “Moisture is thick on the terrazzo floors of the church and they are so slippery that the only way to travel on them is by using an ice skating motion with one’s feet,” Fr. Joe said a few days after the hurricane. “The air is thick and hot, so sleeping is difficult without any means of cooling.”
The friars were grateful when the electricity came on ahead of schedule early last week, and internet service just a couple of days later. In the interim, the parish parking became a distribution center for household necessities such as ice, water, diapers and non-perishable food items. On Sept. 5, members of New Orleans City Council and numerous volunteers “rolled up their sleeves,” said Fr. Joe, and took part in the distribution efforts. Second Harvest Food Bank was planning to be on site at St. Mary of the Angels on Sept. 14 to offer additional assistance.
Fr. Joe related a particular touching story of a couple, former New Orleans residents and friends of a parishioner, who drove straight to the parish from Virginia after Hurricane Ida with the back of their pickup truck packed with supplies, including cereal, tuna and various canned goods. Unsure if the roads would even be passable, they arrived around 9:30 p.m. and had to unload their truck by flashlight since power hadn’t been restored yet. According to Fr. Joe, several neighborhood mothers with infants and young children were especially thankful for the supplies.
By late last week, an assessor had completed a walkthrough to inspect the damage at St. Mary of the Angels and the parish will be working with insurance adjusters and contractors to begin repairs. Parishioners were hard at work clearing limbs and debris from the church parking lot in preparation for a funeral on Saturday.
With faith, determination and the example of the friars, St. Mary of the Angels is once again moving forward. As Fr. Joe said, “The parish always endures.”
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Posted in: Missions