Religion + R e b u i l d i n g How a Catholic church anchored its community after Katrina Story and photos by JORDAN GAMBLE December 2010
Hurricanes are nothing special in New Orleans. In more than 50 years as a Catholic priest and a life-long resident of the Crescent City, Father Doug Doussan has dealt with plenty of storms, including “big ones,” like when Hurricane Betsy hit Louisiana in 1965 and flooded his neighborhood at Star of the Sea parish. U s u a l l y, D o u s s a n says, they’ll know several days in advance and have time to make arrangements – pack up a car with enough clothes for three days and then head out of town to stay with friends and family or at a hotel. They might come back to damage, but nothing insurmountable. “Everything else has been so miniscule, so t e m p o r a r y, ” says Sister Kathleen Pittman, a Sister of St. Joseph of Maidei who has worked with Father Doussan for the last 15 years at St. Gabriel the Archangel parish. The church serves the Pontchartrain Park and Gentilly Woods subdivisions in New Orleans. When Hurricane Katrina came in the last weekend of August in 2005, Pittman remembers hearing there was a weak hurricane headed for Florida, and that Saturday afternoon in New Orleans
was pleasantly mundane. “We left that afternoon, but people were mowing their yards, kids were playing ball in Pontchartrain Park – it was like any ordinary S a t u r d a y, ” Pittman said. “People didn’t realize. If you hadn’t looked at the TV – the paper didn’t even have it because it came out the night before, you know.” Besides, Doussan said, New Orleanians have dealt with so many hurricanes that they just assumed there might be the usual wind damage – t h e c i t y ’s p u m p i n g systems and drainage canals keep things somewhat dry by forcing rainwater into Lake Pontchartrain. No one expected the levees along those drainage canals to break and put 80 percent of the city under water. “That’s what really did it,” Doussan says about the levees. “So we say it was not an act of God, it was an act of the Corps of Engineers, the way they designed and maintained and built them, and they finally admitted the mistakes they made. If the levees hadn’t broken, we would have had very little damage.” Pontchartrain Park and Gentilly Woods were hit hard, Doussan says, because they are on land that is on a decline all the way to the lake.
“The people in the first part of our subdivision had three feet of water, in Gentilly Woods, and the middle had five feet, and the back section, where [the church is], had eight feet, and in Pontchartrain Park they had 10, 12 and higher, over the roof.” The mayor didn’t let citizens back in for five weeks, Doussan says, so when he and Sister Kathleen could finally return to their neighborhood, it was
like entering a ghost town. “Number one, the total silence, because there was nobody else in either of these subdivisions but us,” Doussan says. “There were no birds, no cats, no dogs – they’d all drowned. There were no children playing on the street or whatever.” The second thing was the landscape: A t h i c k f i l m o f g r a y, slushy mud covered nearly everything. It
had baked in the Louisiana autumn sun and cracked under their tires and feet. The doors to the 50year-old church building had been forced open by the flood, and the water had risen six feet in the sanctua r y, l e a v i n g a l i n e right underneath the stations of the cross. The oak pews were piled up on one side of the church, swept out their bolted-down rows. “So everything
Father Doug Doussan stands in the renovated St. Gabriel the Archangel church. The railing surrounds the baptismal pool, a new addition after floodwaters from broken levees destroyed the sanctuary five years ago.
Andrew and Michele Bergeron in the courtyard of St. Gabriel the Archangel parish facilities, which include a school, a parish hall, administrative offices and a gymnasium. around us was devastated,” Doussan says. “It just seemed impossible to think that this community and this church would ever be able to be brought back to life – there was death everywhere we went. Plus the fact we had no parish anymore – all the people were gone.” They returned to Baton Rouge, where Pittman stayed with her St. Joseph community and Doussan lived with a priest friend. They started trying to find their parish members. It was difficult at first: Cell phones were patchy because many of the area’s cell towers had crashed, and their website was out of commission for a couple of weeks. But after a few months, they were able to locate 350 families – scattered over 35 different states. “So that was our first task, just trying to find everybody, trying to give them courage and strength and consolation and hope, just show con-
cern for them,” Doussan says. But as they tracked down their parish, they were also thinking of the whole community of Catholics and non-Catholics alike – mostly older retirees, of moderate and low-moderate income, Doussan says. As the largest church in the “Pontilly” community before the storm, St. Gabriel had the potential to be the anchor of restoration for those people. “Our feeling was, from the very beginning, was … if we could bring the church back, bring the parish back, even in a minimal form, it would be a sign of hope to the rest of the community,” Doussan says. “We wanted to show that it was possible, that people could come back.” Their second task was to get the church building in some minimal repair so it could be an organizing point for the whole community. “The church in Baton Rouge where I
stayed with my priest friend, St. John Vianney parish, they came on Saturdays to clean up all of our facilities,” Doussan says. Anything on the ground floors had to be thrown out – the floodwaters had risen up to eight feet and stayed that high for three weeks. Mold and mildew were rampant in the church building and in the parish’s administrative offices, school and social hall. By Thanksgiving 2005, three months from Katrina, the church was cleaned up enough to have its first mass. Three hundred parishioners drove in from their temporary homes. Andrew and Michele Bergeron, a married couple and both life-long members of St. Gabriel, came down from Memphis for the service. “Everybody was wondering, since the church was all broken down and everything, and everybody was spread to the four winds, if we were going to have that Thanksgiving Day mass,” Michele says. “And we did, it was a gathering point for the people.” “We had those folding chairs, the church was wide open, there w a s n o e l e c t r i c i t y, there were flies in our faces,” Andrew says, “but somehow it was able to come off as a solemn church ceremony. Where the altar is was a big empty hole, a pile of rocks, so on one side of the church, we just gathered as we could and had the mass.” Doussan says the same number of people came for a second mass in January, even though the community was still unlivable. B y F e b r u a r y, S t . Gabriel was having
mass once a week, and about 150 people would show up – some of them now living on the outskirts of town or in Slidell, which was 45 minutes away. “We had no air-conditioning or heat, we h a d n o l i g h t s . We u s e d a g e n e r a t o r, ” Doussan says. “During the winter months, we had heaters that throws flames out – that was a little fearsome. We had to leave the church doors open w h e n i t w a s s t u f f y, because we had no air.” Doussan says he and Sister Kathleen tried to keep positive attitudes, but they still struggled during that first year. “We were hesitant to strongly encourage people to come back because we really d i d n ’t k n o w w h a t would happen to the city. We didn’t know if there would be city services or police protection or garbage pickup or electricity,” Doussan says. B u t t h e c h u r c h ’s legacy in community building and social justice was too valuable to let disappear. “This community … is a community that has been born out of a strong sense of civic pride, a strong sense of ownership,” Michele Bergeron explains. St. Gabriel serves two subdivisions, Gentilly Woods and Pontchartrain Park. Many of those residents have been in the neighborhoods since they were built: Gentilly Wo o d s cropped up after World War II, full of returning GIs and their families. Pontchartrain Park arose in the early 1960s, and it was the first subdivisions built for middle-class African-Americans in
the Jim Crow-era South. “Before Katrina, one of our parish goals was to be a beacon, if you will, of light in the area of social justice for racial harmony, for a voice for the poor and the needy of the parish,” Michele Bergeron says. The parish has about 45 different parish ministries, with half of the congregation participating in anything from working at soup kitchens to marching through the French Quarter and downtown New Orleans to advocate for a living wage. It had also advocated for social justice issues before the city council and the state legislature. “It would have been a tragedy to have lost the church and to have lost the leadership of the church in this area,” Michele Bergeron says. “So, from that perspective, we felt that the parish has always been that kind of a beacon, that kind of a light.” So, when the archdiocese talked about closing St. Gabriel, “It was almost a slap in the face,” Andrew Bergeron says. The Archdiocese of New Orleans – which encompasses churches in Orleans civil parish and seven others – was severely underinsured for flood damage when Katrina struck and the levees broke. Out of the 152 parishes in the archdiocese, Doussan says, 52 had flood damage adding up to $130 million dollars. The archdiocese only had an aggregate policy of $13 million in place, because no one expected so many properties to flood at once. Without enough insurance to repair all that property – not to
Finding its niche New Orleans journalist watched as the Catholic Church, long a fighter for social justice, took on a whole new skill set after Hurricane Katrina
New Orleans is 36 percent Catholic, with over 100 parish churches and a strong network of social services provided by the Archdiocese. So why were Baptists and Mennonites the first responders to a disaster in one of the most Catholic cities in the United States? As the religion beat reporter for The TimesPicayune, Bruce Nolan has seen many the breadth of faith-based disaster response to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. He says that Katrina was so vast that at first no one even thought about coordination. “In the first place, the scope of the job was just completely overwhelming, and it was urgent from day one, the day there were people their roofs – diabetic, babies,” Nolan says. Southern Baptists were some of the first to arrive, with huge semi-trailers outfitted as emergency kitchens. Mennonites got straight to work on carpentry. It was the Protestant churches from across the country sent vans of volunteers to the city almost immediately to help with the gritty labor. That was the first stage, Nolan says Relief. “You’re out of your house, you need food and water, you need a place to sleep right now, you might need a little bit of money, you need a shelter and maybe a place to get your kid in school.” The next stage is
recovery. “It’s six weeks later, you’re now in Houston, you’re in Atlanta, you’d like one day to get back to New Orleans, but you’ve got to get yourself set up for the intermediate term.” Agencies at this stage helped people find apartments and jobs and got kids back into schools. For those that were already back in New Orleans, “You’ve found a new place to live, you’re working, but your house if full of mud and mold and everything is destroyed, so all these spring breakers are pouring and we’ll organize them and they’ll gut your house,” Nolan says. The third stage is rebuilding. “That doesn’t start for six months, at the earliest, after the storm. Your house is gutted, you’re employed, or maybe not employed. You’ve got ‘x’ amount of insurance but ‘y’ amount of damage, and you can get partway into your house but not all the way into your house.” Nolan says different faith-based institutions had various skills that might be better suited for one of these stages than for another – but on the outset, it seemed like the Catholic Church wasn’t doing enough, period. “I’d be out in the front zone for months, in wrecked neighborhoods. Boats on roofs, pickup trucks standing on their radiator grills, their rear wheels hooked up on the gutter. And there’d be men
Nolan and women from Pentecostal churches in Tennessee dragging couches of out houses. And people’d look around and say, ‘Where are the Catholics?’ And the church didn’t go out there. . . And they were not on the ground. They were not in the neighborhoods,” Nolan explained. “They have a different model of working. . . They responded well, but differently.” The Catholic Church as a whole does not have a very powerful emergency relief ministry, Nolan says, but that’s because the Church’s social endeavors are “geared to working with the poor, the needy, in addressing their chronic problems: domestic abuse, illiteracy, poor housing – the chronic sort of urban ills that trap poor people in poverty.” And while the Baptist churches from Tennessee mobilized with kitchen trucks, the Catholic churches and organizations tend to work from fixed locations: community centers, soup kitchens, homeless shelters, parochial schools.
“Catholic Charities is active all over the United States, rendering to the chronic needs of the chronically poor, and doing it with a professionally trained staff of anti-poverty workers who know urban poverty, sociologists and social workers, primarily,” Nolan says. The Catholic Church is used to dealing with the homeless and chronically poor, Nolan says, but the Church had no experience in dealing with a homeless population of thousands overnight. “They had no experience with putting up emergency shelters, no experience with repairing the roof,” Nolan says. “So when I was out in the neighborhoods, and people would come up to me and say, ‘Where the hell is the Catholic Church?’ Well, they were at a parish hall with a line of people, where they were getting baskets of food and gift cards to Wal-Mart and maybe a lead on an apartment.” The Archdiocese of New Orleans’s unit of Catholic Charities set up one such office in St. Gabriel, where case workers helped people find day-care, get food stamps and sort out the Road Home program. But the complete devastation in communities like Pontchartrain Park and Gentilly Woods needed the Catholic Church to be more than a social services office – so the church delved into areas it hadn’t before, like organizing hundreds of volunteers
and providing building materials. Nolan’s wife grew up in that neighborhood and they were married at St. Gabriel the Archangel – and Nolan says it’s because of the leadership of parish priests like Father Doussan that Catholic churches were able to serve as anchors for community restoration. “This was a scale, this was a knee-buckling sight for them. And so in many cases it pulled agencies out of their traditional skill sets,” Nolan explains. “Catholics would do case management, but heretofore they didn’t swing hammers,” Nolan says. “Now they swing hammers.” Five years out, the rebuilding process is highly organized. Catholic Charities runs a program called Operation Helping Hands, which started out by leading the huge influx of volunteers in house-gutting teams. Now the program has moved into details – painting and fixing the mistakes left behind by the first round of volunteers. “They’ve all learned how to do it,” Nolan says. “They’ve bought houses to house their materials, they’ve set up very sophisticated volunteer tracking systems, they’ve learned how to work with local government, they’ve learned how to work the big national nonprofits. It’s all, in a typically American way, it’s all completely systematized.”
‘Out of bad comes good’ A Pontchartrain Park resident was defrauded out of $147,000 by her contractor, but she had St. Gabriel to help her through When Katrina started to roll in, St. Gabriel parishioner Marigold Hardesty thought she’d be back from her friend’s house in Baton Rouge in a few days, like usual. She even left her jewelry sitting on her bedroom dresser. She was finally able to get back into her neighborhood in Pontchartrain Park two weeks after the storm with the help of her son, who had a friend in the city police. I didn’t have the least idea that we had that kind of water. We got here around 6 o’clock in the morning, the police escorted us to the neighborhood – and it was gray, looked like Third World. Oh my goodness, no lights, no nothing – everything as just gray, ashy-looking stuff. . . For sure, the street still had water in it, about this high [about the height of her kitchen table]. So I got out and started walking, and the more I walked, the deeper it got. So when I got here, I still had water in the house. All the furniture was just strewn all around – the freezer was in the den, one sofa was coming out the front, the beds and the dresser was behind the door in the bedroom – I couldn’t open the door to get in the bedroom. Oh, it was just a mess, so I just fainted, right in that old water. We went on back to Baton Rouge and I took my car with me. That was in September. Father Doussan was in Baton Rouge, when I found he was there, I went to the church where he was saying mass. So I go to this church where he’s saying mass, and this little prayer that we say every Sunday before we go to communion, well he had taught this to the parishioners out there in Baton Rouge. ‘Let the holy spirit come in this place.’ And when he said that, I just couldn’t take it no more. I closed my eyes and said, ‘When I walk out of here, I’m gonna be in St. Gabriel’s.’ I just felt like I was in St. Gabriel. It meant a lot to have him there, and a few parishioners, until we moved back to New Orleans and started working on the church. So I stayed there September, October and November the first, I got an apartment on St. Charles Avenue, and I was paying $1600 a month but I wanted to get back home. So we rented that apartment, my sister and I, and then I started working trying to get the house together. Well, I applied for a trailer, and they put a trailer on my lot around January of 2006. I heard and got me a contractor, went through the Better Business Bureau. He didn’t have complaints or nothing – he and his mother had this business in the ‘80s. I said, well, he looks like a good person, and we talked. He knew I go to church every morning, and after that, he got religious, he’d be telling me he believed in God and all of this. But he was just fooling me, and the more he’d come around
and tell me, ‘I need like $40,000 to put the roof on.’ So I wrote him the check for the $40,000. And in a little while he said, ‘I need $20,000.’ It got down to the air conditioning, he told me needed $10,000 for a Trane, because that’s the type of air-conditioning I had before the storm, and I wanted the same kind because it was very good. I gave him $10,000 three times for the Trane. The first time, something happened, so he told me he had to use the money for something else, so I got him $10,000 more. He brought the Trane, put the Trane up – they had wired the house then – and the man who he bought the Trane from came and cut the Trane off and took it because he had never paid. So anyway, he took $147,000 from me. So then I took him to court and I won, so he’s paying me back, but he’s paying me back a little at a time. So it was hard, it was really hard. I had some nuns that came from church that helped me paint the sheet rock, and then I started buying the flooring and stuff, I had to do that myself. I would buy it and then have somebody put it down for me. But you never thought that somebody would do this, after we had gone through so much, because it was so hard for Katrina. And for him to take advantage – that’s what the judge told him when I went to court. He got a lawyer, but I didn’t have a lawyer, I was my own lawyer. His lawyer told the judge, ‘She shouldn’t be in criminal court with this, this is a civil court [issue].’ The judge said, ‘As much money as he took from that lady, it’s a criminal charge and he’s gonna pay her back.’ I know he did that to about 10 people. I had every check where I had paid him, I had back and front when he cashed it and everything. But this other lady, he might have taken cash from this lady, and she had no record of it, and I guess when she took him to court, she couldn’t prove it, but I could prove it because I had every check. So his lawyer told [the judge[, ‘My client didn’t keep records like her.’ Well he should have kept records better than me, because he was the businessman! This happened all of 2006 … I took him to court November of 2006, because I was back in my house in 2007. . . I’ve never had flooding – even with Betsy, and that was a bad, bad hurricane in 1965. We didn’t get any water, because of the levees. [With Katrina] it really and truly wasn’t the storm – it was the levees that broke. My flood insurance wasn’t that much. I think I had $44,000 flood insurance, and I figured that would be enough, if the floors or something, or water leaked. My homeowners’, which is where I had all of the money, they gave me $2,000, they said, because everything came from flood, and they don’t take care of flood. They were horrible, the homeowners’, they were really horrible.
Hardesty in front of her home in Pontchartrain Park The Road Home program, they were a joke. I applied to the Road Home, and right now I’m paying the SBA loan back, $625 a month, and that’s the money that [the contractor] took from me. My house was just like it is, swimming pool, everything, and they appraised my house for $94,000. I told them, I said, I retired in 1994, and I had that sunroom built on that back outside for the pool, and I had to borrow money from the bank. So the bank come and appraised my house: $170,000. That was in 1996 or something like that. And they’re going to appraise it for $94,000? … Plus, the Road Homers sent me a bill or something telling me it would take 290some thousand dollars to rebuild the house – and that’s all you’re going to give me? Ninetyfour thousand? So I sent it back, I didn’t take it, and that delayed me. Then, they redid it and they said, they gave me 113 or 114 thousand. And they said, that’s all we can give you. We have the Loyola Law Clinic around here, and a girl from that goes to our church, and I was telling her about it, and she says, ‘I’m going to write them a letter… I’m going to explain that you’re due more than $113,000.’ So they called me back and they told me they were going to send another appraisal out, but if that appraisal comes back less than the $113,000 we give you, you’re going to have to pay it back. I had gotten that already, the $113,000. And they sent they sent the appraiser out around Christmastime, and he appraised it for $25,000 more. I didn’t mind it, I really needed it because the man had took my money, but they sent it to the SBA. At least it lowered the SBA. It was hell. It was hard. But, I think it brought me closer to God. I used to cry so many nights in that trailer, not knowing … where I’d get the next penny from. But [God] always came through, and I think it just made me have more faith, because out of bad comes good. I was determined. I don’t know what I would have done. It’s inconceivable what I would have done if I couldn’t get back home.
mention a projected dive in Catholic population – the archdiocese decided to close 27 churches. One of those 27 was St. Gabriel the Archangel. “I think there was … because of Katrina, there was a huge kind of depression that affected people throughout the whole area,” Doussan says, “because if you think about it, they lost their homes, they lost all their belongings. They lost their neighborhood, which is very important to the people here, because they were very, very close to their neighbors. . . Some of them lost their jobs, some of them had their health seriously affected, especially the elderly. “I think it was like one more loss, you know. One more loss. It’s like you lose your arm, and then you lose a leg, too,” Doussan says. “Not that they necessarily blamed the archbishop, but it was a real hurt to have the church close.” Doussan says he “had some friendly conversations on the phone” with Archbishops Hughes, telling him St. Gabriel wanted to stay open – even if it meant not taking any of the archdiocese’s insura n c e m o n e y. T h e archbishop agreed. “So that meant any restoration to be done … the funding had to be generated by the parish because the archdiocese was not going to support the rebuild of this church, this parish,” Michele Bergeron explains. The archdiocese did loan St. Gabriel several million dollars, which is still being paid back. Wi t h S t . G a b r i e l future in the clear, the people from its
existing pastoral council – including Michelle and Andrew Bergeron, who were in the social justice and the health ministries, respectively – decided that they would first focus on the immediate needs of their surrounding community. Other churches in the area – Methodist, Lutheran and Baptist – were devastated by the storm and couldn ’t j u m p i n t o t h e recovery like St. Gabriel could. “They didn’t have the wherewithal, the support to begin to really lead an effort to do anything in this area,” Michele says. “Without St. Gabriel, [the neighborhoods] wouldn’t have made the strides. What happened was, St. Gabriel got up and running – if you want to call it walking, whatever you want to say – because of the organizations that we have and the relationship that we have with the parishioners already.” Tw o community organizations come out of St. Gabriel. One i s P o n t i l l y, a j o i n t neighborhood association between Pontchartrain Park and Gentilly Woods. “That doesn’t really belong to St. Gabriel, but they meet here at St. Gabriel and that has a large influence on the group,” Doussan says. “It’s a community organization that has existed for years and years and has tried to make the community a good neighborhood.” The other organization is All Congregations Together, or ACT, a group that meets at St. Gabriel but includes representatives from several different denominations. “That focuses not only on the immediate
‘The gratitude was immediate and powerful and addictive’
Bruce Nolan has written about the city’s faith-based volunteer efforts as part of The Times-Picayune’s coverage of the Katrina disaster. He says that the volunteers that flooded the city made all the difference. “New Orleans, I’m talking about the private relief efforts, has been the recipient of the greatest outpouring of domestic aid, charity, goodwill, neighborliness in the history of the United States,” he says. “Imagine being in a car accident and taken to the hospital, and someone steals your money while you’re in the emergency room and tries to make a pass at your daughter while you’re unconscious. Its that kind of – you’re totally on your back, you’re totally vulnerable. It’s the worst experience of your life, and other people are making it even worse... “And you’re living in a trailer that was never meant to be lived in for more than a week, because these are recreational, these are camping trailers, and you’re now on your 14th month. Your Road Home grant is lost, the insurance company is going to pay you 30 cents on the dollar, and the first guy that you hired to put a tempo-
Nolan rary roof on your house ran off with $1,800. “And you’re thirteen months in this goddamn trailer in your front yard, and your neighborhood is nothing but trailers and weeds and vacant houses and boarded up plywood and no lights at night. Your neighbors are gone, your family’s gone, and this is hell. This isn’t the immediate hell of being on the rooftop – this is the long-term whenwill-this-shit-stop hell. And then there’s a knock at the trailer door. “It was the angels in the volunteer and in the private relief efforts who pumped oxygen into the city so that homeowners who were turning blue – they could start breathing again,” he says. “It would still take fighting with the insurance company, it would still
take the Road Home to come through for them, but that knock on the door saved a lot of lives, and it gave people hope to keep on going.” “Plus they did a hell of a lot of good practical work on the ground. That hope didn’t come from, let me sit with you and hold your hand and sing ‘Kumbaya.’ It was, ‘I’m gonna get a roof over your head.’” “And then they’d meet the homeowners, and the homeowners’ neighbors, and the homeowners would kiss them and hug them and cook gumbo for them and po boys. And this gratitude was immediate and powerful and addictive,” Nolan says. “While they were working on the house, the neighbors would come over and ask, ‘Would you do my house? Would you do my house? Would you do my house?’ and demonstrate this enormous need,” Nolan says. “And [the volunteers] would say, and I heard this thousands of times, they’d say, ‘I never felt more alive. I never felt more useful. I never felt more fulfilled than when I was down there, and I got to go down again. And this time I’m bringing two people.’”
community but on the city of New Orleans as well, even on state issues,” Doussan explains. “They organize to bring about change in policies for the benefit of people.” Those community organizations and the St. Gabriel’s pastoral council formed a disaster collaborative that worked with municipal agencies. “So they put the skills that they had learned in that process to work and try and help bring people back together again so we could do something in the area,” Michele says. “We started having meetings with the city councilwoman and some other people of some authority in the city,” Doussan says. “We gathered some people who were able to come from the community, Catholic or otherwise, who would come to those meetings to talk about, ‘What will we do and what can we expect?’” The church and its disaster collaborative helped the people of Pontchartrain Park and Gentilly Woods in two major ways. The first was by organizing and housing the scores of volunteers who started arriving in April 2006. “We started getting emails and phone calls from people, either friends of mine or Sister Kathleen’s, people from churches who just wanted to come down and help,” Doussan explains. Over a period of about three years, approximately 2,000 volunteers came through St. Gabriel, cleaning out and rebuilding homes for about 150 families in the area. The first group was told to bring sleeping bags, but Doussan
says they soon realized the parish needed to do a better job of accommodating the large groups of college students and retirees who came down to the city for one-week stints. The second-story classrooms in the administrative center, untouched by the storm, were converted into dormitories with donated beds. They also installed six showers in the parish hall and used one wing of the actual church for a dining room, complete with refrigerator (but no stove). It was a hodgepodge kind of set-up, Doussan admits, but the stream of volunteers kept coming, with some people even making return trips. Andrew Bergeron worked with the volunteer groups for a time before he was able to return to his regular job as a home help nurse. “ We g o t t o k n o w them real well, and even became friends,” he says. “But if it hadn’t been for them, I really doubt we could have made the comeback that we did, and in turn, be able to be the church and the center of the community and lend a hand to the people here.” “It was a very human kind of experience,” Doussan explains. “One of the things that was very interesting in the parish, which is 98 percent AfricanAmerican, is the volunteers were 98 percent Caucasian. There were some AfricanAmericans, some Asians, some Hispanics, but the vast majority of them were Caucasians,” Doussan says. “So here were Caucasians from all over the c o u n t r y, g o i n g i n t o
the homes of AfricanAmerican families and cleaning out their homes and restoring their homes. It’s quite a s w i t c h y o u k n o w, when you think about the old days. I think it really did something for race relations in those families.” Doussan says many of the volunteers – mostly college students on their school breaks and retirees with flexible schedules – still exchange Christmas cards and even come to visit the families they helped. St. Gabriel’s second major community program provided building materials to go along with all the volunteer labor. “ We g o t a n u n e x pected grant from a Jewish foundation of $10,000 that was to be used only to help people rebuild their homes,” Doussan explains. With that money as a jump-start, the church started offering each of its parish families up to $1,800 in sheet rock and insulation. All they had to do was place a n o r d e r, a n d t h e church would purchase the materials and have them delive r e d t o p e o p l e ’s homes. “ We d i d t h a t f o r about 150 homes, so we got a large amount of funds” beyond the initial grant, Doussan says. “When people knew that that was what we were doing, we got a large amount of generous donations, because they knew it would go right to the people.” With the help of the parish, about 380 people have moved back, and each returning family adds their name to the “Back Home Board” in the back of the church. The rate has slowed down to about
one returning family a month, although Doussan says at one point two or three families would be added to the board every week. “Prior to Katrina, we had an average of 565 parishioners,” Doussan says. “So it’s about 65 percent who have moved back into the community, and t h a t ’s not just Catholics, but the community at large.” There are still things to be worked on, but the steady progress in community has been mirrored by the remodeling of the church properties, which had been put on the back-burner, Doussan says, so they could focus instead on organizing their resources for the immediate needs of the community. In the months and years after the storm, churches and individuals around the country sent in contributions totaling around $800,000. In some cases, parishes would invite Doussan to preach at their masses and then take up a collection for St. Gabriel after this homily. Doussan says their generosity – one wealthy parish gave $35,000 – made it possible for St. Gabriel to restore the rectory, the administration building, the Catholic elementary school and the parish hall. “ We s t i l l h a v e a debt with the archdiocese of $150,000, b e c a u s e w e d i d n ’t raise everything we needed,” Doussan says. “It’s five years, we c a n ’t hardly appeal again to those churches, they’ve all been very generous, so the parishioners are raising the money now for that debt.” But, he says, “the finances are amazing
because the average weekly income from the 380 individuals who attend mass every weekend is $9,000, which is extremely high for people of moderate and less than moderate income.” St. Gabriel received $1.2 million from the Archdiocese, a cut of the money from a national collection for hurricane relief in all Catholic churches. That helped pay for the repairs to the actual St. Gabriel church building: The walls were repainted, the floors resurfaced, and the sanctuary now has chairs arranged in a semicircle, rather than stiff pews, for a “warmer, more familial” atmosphere, Doussan says. “The blessing was that Father Doug kept the church open because it was central to this community,” Michele Bergeron s a y s . “ Yo u k n o w, when you do the sign of peace in church, i t ’s t h e s i g n t h a t you’re reconciling with your fellow man, that you’re reconciling with each other. It’s a sign of love, it’s a sign … of hope. Katrina hit us, but we’re reconciled to that fact. It’s reality but we’re moving on. So, when I think about St. Gabriel, I think about that reconciliation and hope. St. Gabriel was a bearer of good news.” In a backhanded blessing, the devastating flood gave St. Gabriel the chance to install a large baptismal pool in the church, complete with a video screen and projector so the whole congregation can watch the sacrament. “It was something we had wanted, but never thought we’d be able to get it – but Katrina made it possib l e , ” Doussan said.
The St. Gabriel property also includes an elementary school, parish hall, gymnasium and administrative offices in a u-shaped complex. This courtyard was filled with eight feet of water for three weeks after Hurricane Katrina.
The renovated parish hall once doubled as a shower room for volunteers.
The gym above the parish hall is one of the final spaces awaiting repair.
â€œThis is the Archangel Gabriel, and it was underwater of course. handcarved from Italy and it was breaking open, the wood, so we sent it. Two of the volunteers where craftsmen, and they said, if you send it to us, we'll restore it. So we mailed it to them - we didn't mail it to them, of course, it was sent by a shipping company in three pieces, the hands and the trumpet, and then the wings, which come out. Well, they lost the wings. We had insurance on it, thank goodness. We had a craftsmen work on it based on a picture and they redid the wings, and then they brought it down and presented it back to us. It was really special.â€? - Father Doug Doussan