MENDON — Faced with 4 feet of water that flooded his parish and left everything from pews to school desks to walls a dingy, sodden mess, Father Danilo “Danny” Digal of Our Lady of Prompt Succor in Chalmette, La., felt ready to walk away from his four years at the parish and move on with his life.
After evacuating on Oct. 1, 2005, due to Hurricane Katrina, Father Digal returned to the area to find his parish’s 11 buildings in ruins. The job of rebuilding after such a numbing amount of loss seemed impossible.
Father Digal recalls saying Mass and asking the Blessed Mother for a sign of what to do. It came in the form of a contractor who showed up in the church parking lot and offered to help. That was one part of a long string of assistance that came from all over the country, including three Rochester-area parishes.
Church of the Transfiguration and St. Louis Church in Pittsford and St. Catherine of Siena Church in Mendon had pledged an initial $75,000 to Our Lady of Prompt Succor, but last year, Father Digal received more from the three parishes than expected — a total of $87,238. He said contributions from the three parishes in December of 2005 were the first that Our Lady of Prompt Succor received from any of its partners, which now total 22 from 15 states. The Diocese of Rochester also was the only diocese nationwide to create a formal partnership with the Archdiocese of New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, archdiocesan officials have said.
Since that initial response, the three local parishes have continued to provide both monetary, volunteer and spiritual support. For example, parishioners adopted Prompt Succor families to support, and this past Christmas, St. Louis Church gave an additional $11,000 worth of gift cards to 33 families attempting to rebuild.
“It was an emotional experience on the part of the recipients,” Father Digal said of distributing the gift cards. “They cried tears of joy.”
Now, with a freshly renovated and blessed church, and a school that has been partially renovated, Father Digal took time out of his schedule to travel to the Rochester area to share his gratitude for the help the people of his parish have received.
“It renewed my faith in humanity,” Father Digal said, speaking during a January press conference at St. Catherine of Siena Church.
The money from the Rochester-area churches was used to help rebuild Prompt Succor’s rectory and church, including putting a new roof on the church and outfitting its office with equipment. The parish also has repaired the church ceiling, refurbished the pipe organ and gutted walls that were covered in mold. An army of volunteers also relandscaped the church and school grounds.
One recent volunteer to the Chalmette area was Matthew Murphy of Victor, a member of St. Catherine of Siena and a freshman at Syracuse University. SU’s Catholic community sponsored a January service trip to St. Bernard Parish, the civil parish in which Chalmette is located, and volunteers cleaned out a construction warehouse and gutted a house.
Murphy also had the chance to connect with Barbara and O’Neil Serigne, a local couple that his own family had adopted through St. Catherine of Siena’s adoption program. The Serignes’ home and three of their four fishing boats had been washed away by an 18-foot storm surge. Rather than rebuilding, the couple decided to renovate a gutted home in St. Bernard Parish and was living in a trailer on the property while work was being done.The two families had been writing, and Murphy’s family had sent prayers, encouragement and support, such as flowers for Mother’s Day.
Murphy said when he was finally able to meet the Serignes in person, he was amazed that they focused on how lucky they were to be alive — not on what they lost.
“They were people with a lot to say, and nothing bad to say,” Murphy said.
For the most part, homes remained boarded up and retail was completely shut down, leaving people no way to get supplies, he said.
“What struck me was it’s an area that was just as nice, if not nicer, than the area I live in,” Murphy said. “It was a nice suburban area, but it was pretty much unrecognizable. It was almost like a war zone.”
The devastation to the city was unfathomable, said Glenda Nothnagle of Pittsford, who toured St. Bernard Parish in May and October of 2006. She was visiting her daughter, whose home was spared but whose job was wiped out by the storm.
“It was very, very depressing when I went there in May,” Nothnagle said. “They had not removed any of the automobiles that had been abandoned and had rusted. I saw where caskets had washed up into people’s yards.”
Nothnagle said during her trips she met her adopted family, Robert and Susan Showalter, whom she photographed toasting with champagne flutes of mud in front of a bare Christmas tree. In spite of the barren landscape that surrounds them, they are smiling.
“They have a mentality of ‘I’m going to make it,’” Nothnagle said. “They are very tough people, very proud people, and I think they have a very strong faith.”
Faith was one of the most precious things New Orleans residents hung on to in the aftermath of the storm, Father Digal said, in part because of the efforts of Diocese of Rochester parishioners.
“In the early part of the recovery process, you sent us huge banners,” Father Digal said. “I put them on the wall of the church, and that alone is a marvelous boost in people’s lives. Can you imagine people you don’t even know, who you haven’t ever met, sending their prayers and best wishes and cards and words of encouragement, giving us hope? These things are beyond price.”
Father Digal said that after the storm his parish absorbed eight others that were unable to continue. The parish’s school reopened in March of 2006 with 22 students. Now, 320 children are enrolled and the school has been designated as the central school for St. Bernard Parish, he said.
This summer, crews hope to finish renovations to the school’s cafeteria and gym. Despite having classroom walls stripped to the bare studs and the cafeteria temporarily relocated to a canopied sidewalk, children are holding up under the difficult conditions, Father Digal said.
“I don’t know what the situation is when they go back to their homes in trailers,” he added.
Before the hurricane, about 70,000 people lived in St. Bernard Parish. Now, about 23,000 or 25,000 live there, but most of the homes have not been rebuilt, Father Digal said, noting that very few people had flood insurance.
The church itself had $18 million in flood insurance, which was inadequate considering the scale of devastation, Father Digal said. He said, however, that he is amazed by the speed of his parish’s recovery, which is due in part to Diocese of Rochester parishioners.
“This is still a beautiful place to live, because of people like you,” Father Digal said.
EDITOR’S NOTE: For details on Our Lady of Prompt Succor Church, visit the parish’s Web site — which was constructed by a Rochester volunteer — at www.olps-chalmette.org.