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New Orleans Churches Start from Scratch After Hurricane

New Orleans churches are struggling to rebuild themselves and their communities after Hurricane Katrina. Ray Suarez reports on religious rebuilding.

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    Father Danilo Digall is a joyful man, celebrating mass on Easter for a large congregation. But with his joy comes a heavy responsibility to pastor St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana, to a flock whose homes, and schools, and churches were destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.

    PASTOR DANILO DIGALL, Our Lady of Prompt Succor: We were under water for three days. And I thank all those partners across the country who are reaching out to us. Without this help, I wouldn't think we would be open. But thanks to the many helping hands who came together in our town, in our community, in our churches, in our homes, rebuilding our lives.


    Rebuilding was the theme for many Easter sermons. Parishioners who drove hundreds of miles to pray were grateful to find churches that had struggled seven months after Katrina open for worship.

    Throughout New Orleans, many churches did close. Caked in mud, some seemed ready to be bulldozed with no hope of another Easter in their future.

    In neighborhoods fighting for their survival, it turns out a church is more than just a place for spiritual comfort, a place to mark the events of life, birth, death, marriage.

    Many here are treating churches as infrastructure, every bit as much as a police station, or shopping center, or road, or a bridge.

    Our Lady of Prompt Succor appears to have risen from the storm. When the archdiocese of New Orleans deemed seven churches unable to open, it combined the congregations into one. Now, Our Lady of Prompt Succor is the only Catholic church open in all of St. Bernard Parish, or county.

    Terry St. Germaine has lived in St. Bernard his whole life. Both of his local Catholic churches have been closed, so he was left with only one choice.

    TERRY ST. GERMAINE, Lives in St. Bernard Parish: It's not the best. Of course, to me, a church is just part of a community. You know, and each time you get one thing back that was somewhat normal, well, it helps, you know?


    Pastor Digall says many of his new parishioners are looking to him for guidance.


    I know that it's an overwhelming concept. You know, can you imagine? You know, they're expecting something more. So what we are doing right now is providing the people their spiritual input in our services.


    In the seven months since Katrina, Pastor Digall has cleared many hurdles. In September, the parochial school was in ruins. Our Lady of Prompt Succor sat in deep water, and finances were under water, too. The congregation evacuated. Many of those left were jobless, and collection baskets yielded little.


    … thy kingdom come, thy will be done…


    Even now, as some families find their way back to St. Bernard Parish and back to Father Digall's school, few are flush enough to contribute much to the church's coffers.


    We were on Ground Zero after Katrina. I didn't know where to start, where to begin. We had nothing. So thanks the archdiocese was there to offer their support. I borrowed money from the archdiocese to start.

    We have no other option but to continue with our lives, rebuild whatever, our lives, our homes, our community. And I think slowly we are in that process. I said last Sunday, after almost eight months, we are on the rebound, and our only choice is to embrace our new life.


    But the archdiocese itself, ministering to Spanish, then French, then American New Orleans for three centuries, is also in deep financial distress. On its losses from Katrina, there's an $86 million gap between the cost of hurricane damage and what insurance will pay.

    FATHER WILLIAM MAESTRI, Archdiocese of New Orleans: In addition to that, the archdiocese is experiencing a $1-million-a-month deficit in order to stay operational, because there's always a tension between mission and money. The archdiocese is now operating on the side of mission.

    It's very important for the church, at this particular time, to be present to people educationally, sacramentally, pastorally, and with social services. We are operating at a $1-million-a-month deficit.


    Donated labor cleared the mud and stains the floods left behind. And churches around the country made large cash donations for furniture and office equipment.

    The next goal here: to get the school ready to accept 200 students now registered for the fall. For that, it may take something even more miraculous.

    Edgewater Baptist Church held a festive Easter Sunday prayer service, too, though not in its building. Instead, they celebrated in a tent donated by a local company, and not to the normal 100-plus congregants. Most members say it's not the building that matters most to this congregation.


    It's not so much the building; it's the members, the sisters and brothers in the church. The building, it's never been a church of a lot of material focus.


    Getting what few members they have into their own building may be a long way away, but with one church after another closed along their street, Pastor Kevin Lee says his church is now even more important to his neighborhood.

  • REV. KEVIN LEE, Edgewater Baptist Church:

    We were outside talking with one of the neighbors of the church, and he was asking, "What are you guys doing? Is Edgewater coming back?" And we told him, yes, Edgewater was making plans even at that point to re-establish her presence in the community.

    And he said, "Well, then, I know everything is going to be OK, if Edgewater's coming back." And we've had story after story of people driving by and stopping in, saying, "We know the community's going to be OK, because we see you guys coming back."


    Again and again, you hear it from congregants and from clergy: When a damaged church rebuilds or rebuilds its school, it sends a powerful message to a damaged neighborhood, and Lakeview is one of those.

    With nearly no one living in the neighborhood, the parishioners have rebuilt St. Dominic's.

    EDGAR LANDRY, Longtime Members of Church: Where you going to put that?

    JERI LANDRY, Longtime Members of St. Dominic's Church: I'm going to put it up on the stand.


    Jeri Landry and her husband, Edgar, are longtime members of the church. Edgar built new kneelers and flower pedestals for the altar. This Easter Sunday, the couple drove seven hours from where they're living in Northern Louisiana to help decorate the church. They decided this weekend that, if the church is back, they're moving back.


    It becomes a part of your heart. You know, when you're in the parish for so many years and did so much in the parish, it's like you don't turn that loose. What you do is try and go catch the string and go along with the flow again. And…


    Our heart is actually here at St. Dominic, and we have a great parish here. And all of our pastors in the past have done a great job, and they've held our community together. We're a close-knit family here.


    St. Dominic's brought back many loyal congregants who don't live in Lakeview for Easter vigil on Saturday evening. Father Don Divorak took the theme of resurrection to his congregants.

  • FATHER DON DIVORAK, St. Dominic’s Catholic Church:

    If we really love one another, if we love our community, if we love our parish and our church, if we love Lakeview and New Orleans, then we can enliven it and we can bring about rebirth.


    The pastor says his church, open since Thanksgiving, helped get the neighborhood through a tough time.


    I think many of the parishioners and people in the neighborhood in Lakeview felt, if the church can be up and running, then that's a pretty good sign that the neighborhood could come back.

    In many ways, this was like a community center, you know, not simply for worshipping, but also for a lot of activities that took place.


    The journey back to normal will be a much tougher one for Divine Providence Full Gospel Church in New Orleans' devastated Seventh Ward. Its congregation scattered, much of its neighborhood remains a ghost town. After the storm, its sanctuary was under water for 17 days and was heavily damaged.

    Bishop Tommy Triplett said the first job was ministering to the 1,100 souls under his care; the building came second. But for that congregation and the Seventh Ward, he says he's got no choice but to rebuild.

  • PASTOR TOMMY TRIPLETT, Divine Providence Baptist Church:

    People will come. They will come and worship. It would give them a new hope again. I believe that the church is the backbone, the lifeline of a community.

    I really don't believe that it's politics and those types of things that we give a lot of credit to; I believe it's the church. And when Divine Providence, not if, but when Divine Providence comes back, it's going to send out a very positive message to the rest of the community that things are well. We will be that symbol that everything is going to be well.


    For now, Divine Providence Church sits empty while its bishop and congregation await a long-delayed insurance settlement. Meanwhile, the congregation, including some new post-Katrina members, is using another full gospel church across the river on the west bank for worship.


    After all I've been through, I'm still here. After all I've lost, God is still taking care of me. Isn't that wonderful? I could have been lost in more ways than one, but God has taken care of us. What a blessing, what a blessing, what a blessing, what a blessing.


    Many in this crowd, people first chased out of their homes by rising floodwaters, said they would not have returned unless Divine Providence Church returned.

  • DARREN BOYKINS, Divine Providence Church Parishioner:

    I was thinking about really just staying in Houston and not coming back. But when the pastor said he was coming back, I was — right now, I'm first assistant and chief servant. I had to come back.


    Along with the success stories of churches that insist they're going to make it, there are those that may have to wait a very long time to open their doors, if they ever do again. And untold thousands moving back and fixing up will find one part of their old lives in New Orleans a little harder to replace.