Rebuilding New Orleans

Sun, 03/05/2006

New Orleans Archbishop Alfred Hughes has been busy mending his archdiocese and reaching out to the devastated community since Hurricane Katrina hit last summer.

More than 75% of the parishes and schools are in service to the local community and Catholic charitable groups are ministering to those most in need.

Archbishop Hughes shared with ZENIT that he and the faithful are convinced that God is with them in their efforts at recovery and rebuilding, despite the daunting tasks that still lie ahead.

Q: What has the response to the hurricane aftermath taught you about the faith of the people around New Orleans and the Gulf Coast?

Archbishop Hughes: I have been deeply inspired by the faith of the people.

A number of the faithful have asked "Why?" not because their faith has been shaken, but to express a faith seeking understanding of what God is asking of us as a Church in response. When I visited the shelters providing basic food and clothing to those who are the poorest of the poor, those still dealing with the shock of what had happened, they wanted to share prayer and sought the gift of a Bible or a rosary in their distress.

The Church in New Orleans is accustomed to praying for the intercession of Our Lady of Prompt Succor for protection of our city. As we celebrated her feast on January 8, 2006, the homilist, Father Joseph Palermo, rightly addressed the question that was in the hearts of some of the pilgrims who came: Where was Our Lady of Prompt Succor on August 29, 2005?

He then went on to speak of Mary's role in her own son's Passion. She did not try to prevent his crucifixion but was present and supportive throughout, standing at the foot of the cross. I have the sense that the faithful are convinced that God is with us in our efforts at recovery and rebuilding.

Q: What is the next stage in your ongoing work of recovery in the Archdiocese of New Orleans?

Archbishop Hughes: To address the next stage, it is important to realize that the first stage involved our outreach to people in need. We sought every means to offer humanitarian aid and pastoral care.

The second stage was our efforts at the restoration of parishes and schools. The third saw us enter into an extended pastoral planning process for that 25% of the archdiocese that could not be restored right away. The next stage is now more long range as we address the final 25% of the archdiocese.

We are opening cluster parishes and central schools to cover wider geographical areas. We are also opening new community service centers to reach out to those most in need.

Q: How do you hope to rebuild the parishes, schools, hospitals and community centers over the next two years?

Archbishop Hughes: Through the pastoral plan we have now developed, we have identified those buildings that we are first focusing attention on restoring. These will be the buildings that will serve as cluster churches or the regional schools.

We will ensure the preservation and insurance of the buildings that we cannot restore at this time. We will seek to finance the restoration effort through insurance money, loans from the Small Business Association, FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] reimbursements and the use of our property for collateral for the realizing of significant capital for rebuilding.

We estimate that we have approximately $84 million of uninsured losses. That is why it is important to focus our attention on those buildings that are more easily restored now while we await word on what kind of insurance settlements, FEMA assistance and loans we can realize.

The bishops of the United States have authorized that 30% of the monies they have generously raised in their dioceses can be applied either to operational deficits or capital expenses. The rest is earmarked for humanitarian aid.

Q: How has the Church been reaching out to the faithful and other community members?

Archbishop Hughes: From the beginning, the pastoral care of people most impacted by the hurricane was a high priority. Priests assumed responsibility in the shelters and at the airport where the sick were being triaged.

We assigned priests to work together with the bishop of each of the six other dioceses in Louisiana and also in Houston, Dallas, Austin, Jackson and Atlanta so that evacuees in shelters could receive pastoral care.

Priests served the rescue workers, they accompanied families to the morgues and they tended the sick.

Then those who were displaced became pastors of virtual parishes. They explored every means to reach out and contact parishioners to find out their needs, to express pastoral concern and to try to help them connect with resources available.

Q: Are most of the Catholic charitable groups up and running? How are they ministering to people?

Archbishop Hughes: Ninety percent of our Catholic Charities ministries are operating in some capacity and those that are not operating currently are set to open in the next six months.

The Catholic Diocese of Baton Rouge was also extraordinary in facilitating our response from the very early days to those in need of humanitarian aid.

Our Catholic Charities teamed with Catholic Communities Services of Baton Rouge to try to assist in identifying where people were and in need of rescue, in servicing the shelters, in ensuring that sufficient food was available and in offering emergency assistance.

In the first four months our food bank was responsible for the delivery of 10 million pounds of food a month to those who were in need.

We also, through our 10 community service centers, distributed, on an average, $200,000 a week to assist those most severely in need. This was made possible through the monies collected from dioceses throughout the United States and channeled to us through Catholic Charities USA.

We established Operation Helping Hands that has brought between 3,000 and 4,000 people to New Orleans to help the elderly and poor clean and gut their homes. Two hundred counselors are in the employ of Catholic Charities trying to connect needy people with services available.

Q: How can the Church's service to the residents of New Orleans be a beacon of hope for the future?

Archbishop Hughes: As each parish or school reopened the Church became a beacon of hope for the local community. As indicated, we now have over 75% of our parishes and schools in service to the local community.

When St. Louis Cathedral reopened at the end of October, it was a beacon of hope for the city. When St. Louis Cathedral School became the first school on the east bank of the river in Orleans Parish to reopen, it became a beacon of hope to the local community.

On the first Sunday of Advent the ecumenical and interfaith community came together at St. Louis Cathedral to enter into a prayer service for healing, thanksgiving and an expression of hope.

When strident voices seemed to predominate regarding the planning efforts for the new New Orleans, an interracial, interfaith and ecumenical group of clergy came together to call for calm, reflective and constructive reflection on the proposed plans.

We also committed ourselves to action initiatives which we would support in facilitating civil engagement with the public discussion needed. This became a beacon of hope.

On the weekend of March 11 and March 12, Billy Graham and his son, Franklin, will come to New Orleans for a Celebration of Hope. Although as a Catholic Church we have significant differences in theology, we know that some Catholics will participate. The services planned are intended to reach out to all people and invite conversion of heart and life as a way of expressing hope for the future.

The Catholic archdiocese is prepared to work with any Catholics who may, through their participation in this Celebration of Hope, want to enter into a deeper understanding of their faith and the living of it.

Q: How has this experience been a source of renewal for the archdiocese in refocusing resources and bringing people together?

Archbishop Hughes: Whenever a people is deprived of a way of life that they have taken for granted, God offers an invitation to focus on what is more central. It seems to me this has happened for us in the Archdiocese of New Orleans.

There is a greater participation in Mass. The words of sacred Scripture seem to speak more directly. Water, flood, light, rock, exile, faith, hope, love -- all of these speak powerfully to us today. We will probably be fewer and poorer for the future. It does not mean that we cannot be a people of deeper faith, a livelier hope and a more sacrificial love.