Five Sisters of St. Joseph traveled to Louisiana last month to aid both the victims of Hurricane Katrina and the people who assisted them.
While in Louisiana, the sisters said they were amazed at the way people broke through barriers of race and class to assist each other, and added that they wanted to bring back that same spirit of solidarity to the Diocese of Rochester.
Sisters Peg Brennan, Phyllis Tierney, Jean Bellini, Donna Del Santo and Eileen Curtis left Sept. 8 for Houma, La., which is about 60 miles southwest of New Orleans. The sisters were responding to a nationwide call for Sister of St. Joseph volunteers from Sister Celeste Cotter, CSJ, associate director of parish social ministry for the Diocese of Houma-Thibadoux. The diocese is named for two neighboring cities and hosted between 8,000 and 10,000 evacuees from New Orleans, Sister Cotter said.
Sister Cotter praised the Rochester sisters for their work in her diocese.
“They were angels in a time that I really needed them,” Sister Cotter said. “They’re a good group. I would have never made it without them.”
In particular, she noted that the sisters worked in area nursing homes, helping patients who had been evacuated from New Orleans make contact with family members. She added that the sisters helped organize parish-based teams that are continuing to address both the short-term needs of the evacuees as well as such long-term needs as employment and housing. While in Houma and Thibadoux, the sisters said they also helped distribute clothing to evacuees and answer phones at shelters.
Four of the sisters returned to Rochester on Sept. 23. Sister Del Santo had left for Poughkeepsie, N.Y., on Sept. 11 to be with her mother, who had suffered a stroke and is now recovering.
Sisters Brennan, Tierney, Bellini and Del Santo spoke about their experiences in Louisiana during an interview at their congregation’s motherhouse in Pittsford. They noted that a number of people they served in shelters were the poor of New Orleans.
“They had very little, and they were living in big open areas mattress to mattress,” Sister Tierney said of the shelters’ residents.
Sister Bellini added that people were “amazingly upbeat,” and many were simply grateful to have survived the flood. One woman they met who was in her 80s broke her hip fleeing floodwaters and lost her husband as well. Nonetheless, the sisters said, the woman expressed gratitude to God, as did many other evacuees from New Orleans.
“To them, the fact that they had survived was motive enough to praise God,” Sister Bellini said.
The sisters said that they heard horror stories about the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in New Orleans, where thousands of residents sought shelter and waited several days for buses to take them out of the city. Bereft of food, water and electricity, some of the center’s residents suffered violence at the hands of others who were armed, according to several reports, and the sisters said they met a woman who broke her arm attempting to flee a group of men intent on assaulting her.
In contrast to the stories they heard of pain, the sisters said they witnessed extraordinary acts of kindness and sacrifice, by both evacuees and those who helped them. The sisters recalled one woman volunteer at a shelter arriving every day at 9 a.m. to work in the clothing room. Another woman — used to having a maid clean her home bathrooms — volunteered to clean the bathrooms at the Houma Civic Center, where many evacuees stayed. Still another female evacuee — who was white — was continually assisted by an African-American couple, also victims of the flood, the sisters said. They noted that similar examples of people of different races and classes working together abounded.
“It just put you to shame,” Sister Brennan said. “They were just wonderful people.”
Now that the sisters are home, they hope to share their stories with diocesan parishioners, they said, adding that they were pleased that the Rochester Diocese had announced in late September that it was partnering with the Archdiocese of New Orleans. The partnership will allow individual parishes, schools and other diocesan groups to partner directly with parishes and other archdiocesan entities in rebuilding efforts, according to Deacon John McDermott, coordinator of diocesan response to the hurricane.
To learn more about the partnership, call Deacon McDermott at 585/328-3210, ext. 1303.