A   HOUSE   CALLED   MERCY

The South is rising again.  Not quickly, painfully slowly.  But the Gulf Coast, the Scenic Highway, the counties to the north and west, the little towns sprinkled along the Gulf in Mississippi and Louisiana, all have changed since last year.  The debris is gone.  There are still empty lots and paths leading nowhere but many homes have been renovated or rebuilt, more windows replaced, and the Waffle House is open!  Most of the casinos are up and running and more than a few small businesses are attempting comebacks.

Our work crew from St. James returned to the Mississippi Gulf Coast for the second time, undertaking a variety of renovation and repair jobs during the week of April 19 through April 26.  Most of last year’s crew returned and there were a few memorable additions.  Toni Guerette, Jerry’s wife, joined us as our official cook – and what an addition she was!  Tom Sullivan, Falls Church architect, whose expertise was well-used, came along for the first time, as did Arlene Griff.  Returning were Joan Buscher, Jane Fitzgerald, Jerry Guerette, Mary Frances Moriarty, John Perka, Margarette Shovlin, Sara Tindall,  and  DeSales Toye.

Gathered at National Airport on Saturday morning, one of the group noticed a celebrity waiting for the same plane: Marion Barry, wearing his signature work-out clothes and black fedora.  He was headed to Memphis for a meeting of municipal administrators.

Last year we flew Delta and changed planes in Atlanta; this year Northwest offered better prices, with a change in Memphis, putting barbeque on the flight plan!  It was, to quote the Michelin Guide, worth a journey.  The restaurant was next to the gate for the Gulfport leg of the journey, indicating great planning on the part of the  proprietors of  Corky’s Barbeque.

John Perka met us in Gulfport; after baggage retrieval and van rental we followed him to Diocesan-provided housing in Biloxi, Blessed Seelos Retreat House, formerly a Sisters of Mercy Convent, on LeMeuse Street, in the shadow of the IP casino in Biloxi. Father Chung Cao, a Vietnamese Redemptorist, welcomed us.  The Redemptorists had agreed to take over the care of the former St. John as well as  Mother of Sorrows, combined into Blessed Seelos in late August, 2005, two days before Katrina struck.

Athelia and Hank Piernas, whose home in Pass Christian we had helped renovate last year, were gracious hosts for a delicious Southern dinner that evening.  Athelia, with the help of her sister Belvia and sister-in-law Yvonne, had prepared crab bisque, stuffed peppers, peas, banana-chocolate pudding, and icebox lemon custard pie, washed down with sodas, beer, and sweet tea.  Those Southerners know how to welcome!  Also present was the Piernases’ son-in-law Pete, with daughters Tracy and Jade.  Athelia, seamstress as well as cook, showed us the prom dress she was making for grand daughter Jasmine, an exquisite creation of gold and white, with train and lace overlay, fit for a princess. (Athelia also creates wedding dresses for family members as well as other customers.)

Hank and Athelia’s parish, Our Lady of Mercy, has been totally restored and is now in full operation.  It is 101 years old, founded by the Josephite Fathers to serve the black population of the Pass.  A quarter mile or so farther back from the Gulf than the old St. Paul Church, it suffered from Katrina but the structure remained standing despite extensive damage.  They celebrated their re-opening in September, 2007.

Back in Biloxi, the morning after our arrival, Blessed Seelos Church hosted its regular monthly pancake breakfast.  We were greeted by half a dozen parishioners, and joined by several as we enjoyed the food (seconds allowed).  Sister Mary Riordan, a Sister of Mercy who had previously lived in what is now the retreat house, was a charming addition.  A soft brogue was still evident after more than 50 years in Mississippi.  The three Sisters who remain live in a small home in Gulfport and continue the Mercy apostolate of visiting the poor, the distressed, the lonely.

We had been invited to Sunday Mass at Holy Family Church in Pass Christian, the now-merged parish encompassing the former St. Paul, that had stood on the rise overlooking the Gulf since 1847, and Our Lady of Lourdes, on Evangeline Road, about five miles inland.  No one is happy about the merger, neither the St. Paul parishioners nor those of Our Lady of Lourdes.  The Bishop’s decision was based on the feasibility – and insurance coverage – of rebuilding a fifth church on the former site of St. Paul.  Two had burned, two had been destroyed by hurricanes.  A group of unhappy St. Paul parishioners continues to bring suits against the diocese in an attempt to re-establish St. Paul on the beach. 

Bishop Thomas J. Rodi, newly appointed Archbishop of Mobile, and administrator of the diocese of Biloxi, presided at the 10 am Mass, where ten young members of the parish were confirmed.  He spoke to the Confirmandi and to the congregation about the significance of their desire for Confirmation, their desire to live as mature Catholics, and what this will mean in their own lives and in the lives of those around them.  He spoke without notes and with appreciation for the efforts of both the Confirmandi and their families.

After the Mass, at a reception for parishioners, Sara Tindal and I had an opportunity for a conversation with the Bishop.  He told us of the need of all who have suffered from Katrina to “tell their story.”  Each family, each individual, who has been through emotional disaster has a profound need to share the story.  He also told us of the small parish in Mexico that has been supported by the Diocese of Gulfport.  The parish is literally dirt poor yet within days of Katrina they had sent $500 for the relief of those in need in Mississippi.  The Bishop’s words came back to us over the days that followed: the young couple in the trailer in Bay St. Louis, the grandmother in Biloxi, the Vietnamese man who spoke no English but who brought water and smiles and gestures to the work crew who replaced his kitchen.

After the Mass and reception, Skip Barrett, our contact for Holy Family Parish, took us to see two properties in need of renovation.  Neither was appropriate for the skills in our group, but as he left to meet family members due to arrive at his home, he assured us of houses to be dry-walled, painted, etc., that he would tell us about on Monday.

Ann Hale of the Diocesan Office arrived at the Retreat House Monday morning as we had breakfast, and together with Tim and John and gave us our assignments:  Jane, Joan, and Sara were to staple insulation onto the floor of a trailer in Bay St. Louis.  This would involve crawling under the trailer and stapling the insulation to the underside of the flooring, then stapling chicken wire over the insulation to hold it onto the underflooring.  Two women from northwest Mississippi, an aunt and niece, Ella and Vicky, would join them on this job.  John Perka, Tom Sullivan, and Jerry Guerette were assigned a house waiting for a kitchen and a bathroom to be finished.  The house was home to a Vietnamese man who spoke no English; the house was close enough that the men could return to the Retreat House for lunch prepared by Toni.

Jane, Sara, and Joan dropped DeSales, Margarette, and me at Skip’s home, where they painted and I ran the industrial vacuum as well as painted a little.  The home, on the site of one that had been washed away, was within steps of the Gulf, in the Pass Christian area. Around us were homes that had been rebuilt, homes in the process of recovery, and empty sites.  The notorious FEMA trailers, with their toxic formaldehyde, have been replaced with frame “shotgun” cottages.  Skip intends one room of his rebuilt home for a grandson who is a Notre Dame fan; the color scheme involves Notre Dame blue on the upper half of the walls and the gold of the Notre Dame Dome on the bottom half.  Finding the right shade has consumed a great deal of time and resulted in several failed attempts.

Our work was finished long before the time our companions would arrive from Bay St. Louis, 40 miles away, to pick us up.  Workpersons (two men and a woman) completing electrical hook-ups came in and out, chatted with us about the hurricane and the slow recovery and the idyllic life to be enjoyed in Ocean Springs or Long Beach or The Pass – anywhere, in fact, along the coast.

Stapling insulation is hot, dirty work; Jane, Sara, and Joan were worn out when they arrived to pick us up with the information that theirs was no one day job but looked more like two or three. Toni’s dinner of chicken fingers, mashed potatoes, French fries, string bean casserole, salad, and desserts from our Saturday feast with the Piernases, made up for the hard labor of the day.

Having no word from Skip about Tuesday work, DeSales and Margarette joined Jane and Joan, on the Bay St. Louis job, where they unrolled and cut insulation, refilled staple guns, brought water to the under-house crew. (Sara had become ill from something under the trailer: mold? mildew? and stayed at the Retreat House to recover.) The three men went back to their bathroom/ kitchen work. I stayed at the Retreat House with Toni and Arlene, and remembering the assigned tasks of our week at Dedeaux, set to work with laundry and bathrooms.  (There is something both humbling and energizing about cleaning bathrooms: it’s at the lowest rank of house work, yet one achieves the brightest, most shining results and a certain pride at having completed a pretty awful job.)  And of course there’s always a vacuum cleaner to be pushed around, which Arlene did in the adjoining chapel.

That evening, in a restful interlude between cleaning up and dinner, Father Chung stopped to chat with us in the patio bounded by the Rectory, the Retreat House, and the Parish Hall. He briefly sketched some of the challenges of rebuilding and renovating, and invited us to come over to the Church after dinner.

Within the hour, John Perka told us Father Posey would be arriving Wednesday afternoon, leaving late Thursday.

We had heard a little of the story of Blessed
Seelos, its beginnings as St. John, the merger of St. John and Mother of Sorrows. (The shortage of diocesan priests left both parishes without a pastor; the Redemptorists agreed to take over both, merging them into Bl. Seelos.)  But we had no idea of the extent of the destruction on that square block of Biloxi.  The school was completely destroyed; a cement expanse with not even much in the way of rubble is all that remains.  The Convent/Retreat House was flooded and muddied.  One half of the Rectory was washed away.  The church was gutted, flooded, muddied, windows broken, statues washed out, pews destroyed. Father Chung told us of his father’s advice: when you are the boss, you must know the job of everyone who works for you, so that when the job is done you will know whether it is done right.  His father, Father Chung said, served time in prison in Vietnam.  (It was unclear to us whether his father had died there or had survived to come to the States with the family, who now live in Dallas.)

In following his father’s advice, Father Chung told us, he learned to do the jobs needed after one contractor took advantage of him, with a resulting loss of several thousand dollars. He cleaned out the mud and debris from the church with the help of the parishioners, became his own contractor, pieced together the old windows, found new pews on e-Bay, and learned to do the jobs required for renovation.  He spoke with a smile of his “twenty-five Mexicans” who worked for him and for other churches in the area, clearing out and rebuilding.  (At the present moment they are in Mexico renewing their visas.) For six months they enjoyed daily box lunches from the Red Cross. The traditional statue of Our Lady was found near her appointed place to the left of the altar, though surrounded by debris.  Our Lady of Vietnam, however, was found outside, under a bush!  Both have been repainted and stand in places of honor. With understandable pride he told us how he learned to lay pavers in the patio, incorporating the Cross in the design. 

He told us all of this as we sat in the front rows of the renovated church.  He spoke softly, and we listened intently.  He asked for questions (yes, there is a slight slant  from the church entrance down to the altar so that everyone has a good view of the altar and the liturgy; yes, there is still a great need for money to support the parish as many former residents have left permanently) then announced that he had a religious goods shop in the back.  We hadn’t noticed as we entered, but there it was, just inside the entrance, lights on, parish secretary at the cash register.  When one or two of our group regretted not having brought wallet or purse, Father Chung replied, “That’s alright – we’ll wait.” And he did, while most of us hurried back to the Retreat House to get money and check books.  The religious goods were of high quality, the books for both children and adults were ranged from simple ones for First Communicants to Julian of Norwich.  The handmade rosaries were beautiful.  We spent a lot, Father Chung standing at the door, smiling. He is a most engaging fellow.

With the job in Bay St. Louis nearing completion, and no other work on the horizon, Toni and Arlene went with John Jerry, and Tom to the house in Biloxi while the rest of us went back to the trailer/insulation project.  By this time it had become clear that both jobs and completion estimates were sketchy, and that Skip Barrett’s talk of five houses under construction was faulty, to say the least.  The Biloxi home needed extensive work, not “a little electric, a little plumbing.”  The trailer job was not a half-day job but a two-and-a-half-day job, with five people working under the house, another two or three refilling staple guns, cutting insulation and chicken wire, bringing water.

The rest of our group went to the trailer job that day, determined to finish it.  (Jane Fitzgerald said later, “When I first saw the trailer, and the low clearance, I knew it was going to be hard. It was a challenge. The next day I really worked to get it finished.  The third day, it was hard to go back and crawl under that trailer again, really hard.”) With additional hands the job was finished by midday, with great celebration!  Not only was the job finished, the surrounding property was cleaned up, the insulation and chicken wire stored.

The young couple who lived there, Mike and Angela, had met in high school (he played football) and married after graduation.  They have a 12 year old daughter and a six year old son, both at school when we were there.  He works at a plant in Bay St. Louis, she is taking classes at the community college in Gulfport, hoping for a better job.  When we noted the neatly planted flowers in the front of the trailer, Angela confided that “I lost a baby, and she would have been nine last week, so the flowers are in her memory.”  Bishop Rodi was right: people need to tell their story.  We had wondered at the money spent on an extensive floral display; we hadn’t known of the heartbreak behind it.  And we remembered Ann Hale’s advice, “Don’t make any judgments about the people you meet when you go on these jobs.  You don’t know what they’ve been through.”

On our way back to Biloxi (a 50 mile trip, yet another example of poor coordination at the Diocesan level) we stopped in Pass Christian and had lunch at The Crab Shack, an institution on the beach established in 1930, surviving against all odds.  It stands just a few blocks from the site of St. Paul Church, and within sight of Our Lady of Mercy.  The crab po’boys and the Barq’s root beer were as delicious as they had been last year! So were the barbeque sandwiches and real beer.

On our way back to Biloxi we went by the first house we had worked on last year, at 216 Dr. Metz Street.  High up on stilts, it is completely finished, painted pink, with two stairways and two porches, and occupied. We had noted last year that there was only one small window on the side facing the Gulf. Would this minimize wind and rain damage? What had been a vacant lot behind it, the house having been completely destroyed, now held a brand new home – also on stilts.  Another sign of recovery: at least seven Waffle Houses between Pass Christian and Biloxi are open and doing business!  Last year we saw at least that many closed, some with signs that declared hopefully, COMING SOON, or NOW HIRING.  And they have come and are hiring!

Along the Coast Highway are more signs of recovery: many live oaks injured by the storm but not completely destroyed have been carved into dolphins, sword fish, mermaids, and various fanciful creatures.  A sign of devastation has been made into a sign of recovery – and of imagination and beauty.

Father Posey was due to arrive Wednesday, in late afternoon.  The kitchen/bathroom job still required work; the trailer insulation job was finished, and Skip hadn’t called with other work.  John Perka and I went to Father Chung and asked if there might be any work among his parishioners.  Give me 15 minutes, he said.  Within 15 minutes Bunny, the chair of Social Outreach in Bl. Seelos parish, called; there was  painting to be done in her own home – other parish needs had previously taken precedence.  She and her brother-in-law lived within walking distance of the church, both needing help.  We agreed to come on Thursday afternoon and start her painting job.

Father Posey arrived on schedule and invited us to dinner at Vrazel’s Restaurant near Pass Christian.  We had taken Father Carver there for dinner last year at the end of our week; the owner is a Deacon from the old St. Paul and now the new Holy Family.  Asked where he was staying that night, Father Posey said that on the advice of Father Hanley (who worked with us a few days last year) he had “made other arrangements.”  That is, last year’s accommodations had been so dreadful the pastor was urged to stay elsewhere.  A 20-story hotel with a large casino is in sight of Bl. Seelos.

Dinner at Vrazel’s was delicious and particularly nice as the Deacon himself emerged from the kitchen to chat with Father Posey and our party.  We sat at two tables and Father Posey graciously joined the first table for dinner and the smaller one for dessert.  We all noticed that the crowd was smaller than last year, and the Deacon had commented that the economic slowdown had had a dismal impact.  Our companion Tom Sullivan left after dinner and before dessert to head north to a class reunion at Wheeling College and a visit with a brother in Ohio.  He had been a valuable addition to our group, as an architect as well as a man with construction experience.  And he is indeed a delightful companion.

Thursday morning Father Posey went with Jerry and John to the kitchen/bathroom job while we women took Sara Tindall to the airport; her granddaughter will receive First Communion Saturday and of course Grandmother  needed to be on the premises ahead of time!  We met at Holy Family, near Pass Christian, and Father Posey gave Father Carver a generous check from St. James.  In return, Father Carver took us on an abbreviated tour of the school under construction.  Much of the area was hard-hat only, off-bounds to mere sight-seers, but we saw enough to know that there is a grand parish- building event going on there.  The school is hurricane-proof and can serve 450 students; 400 have already registered.  There will be classrooms and a cafeteria and a gym, all with the finest and latest technology.  Father Carver told us it had taken the Coast 30 years to recover from Camille, and recovery from Katrina will take at least as long.  There is great resistance on the part of many St. Paul parishioners. Their landmark church, on the same site in view of the Gulf, had served the Pass since 1842, and they don’t care to be merged with Our Lady of Lourdes, a relative newcomer, five miles inland, dating only from the 30s.  Lourdes isn’t any happier being merged with St. Paul as they have created their own identity and customs and traditions.  However, the Bishop has decreed that there will not be another church on the St. Paul site: the one destroyed in Katrina was the fourth on that site.  Two had burned, two had been washed away; the insurance companies will not cover another building.  Nevertheless, disgruntled St. Paul parishioners continue to file law suits designed to slow if not stop the building of the merged Holy Family.

Father Posey went to the airport for his flight to Northern Virginia; the rest of us returned to Bl. Seelos for Toni’s delicious lunch.  Jerry and John went back to their Vietnamese gentleman; we women went to Bunny’s home.

Bishop Roti had told us of the need for listening.  When we arrived Bunny was waiting at the door.  “Before you come in,” she said, “let me tell you what happened here.”   She and her immediate family had left before Katrina struck, going to the home of relatives farther inland.  By the second day many residents from nearby areas, having escaped, found themselves homeless. Bunny’s home was still standing.  First two or three, then four or five, and in the end nine strangers shared the home, with nowhere else to go.  At the end of a month, when Bunny and her family returned, some of their temporary “boarders” were still living in the home.  Bunny told us how she welcomed them and helped them find housing, as well as other social services.  When the driveway was resurfaced, she and her family scratched into the surface the names of all those who had found refuge there.

There was another part to the story.  A few years before, Bunny’s sister had died of breast cancer, and Bunny took in her sister’s early-teenaged son. He is now a senior in high school, and a great fan of the Texas Tech football team.  He is such a fan that he wanted nothing more than to have his room painted in TT’s colors (maroon and blue). She had the paint, the brushes, the tape for edges. The painting crew worked furiously to finish the job, and did, before he returned home from school. Bunny wanted to surprise him, and met him at the door with the news that she hadn’t been able to get the colors he wanted, that they were more expensive than she could afford, but at least the room was now clean and freshly painted.  He was disappointed but trudged up the stairs and opened the door.  There was his room, painted in Texas Tech colors!  He was ecstatic!  And so was the paint crew!

There is Mass each day at 7 am in the chapel.  The chapel is at the side of the retreat house nearest the street, and there are also a meeting room and a small restroom.  Beyond a locked door are the rooms where we stayed; when this House of Mercy was first built, those rooms housed the Sisters of Mercy who served the area. Another door closes off the individual rooms and shower/restroom from the common areas of the house. As a retreat house, the former Sisters’ community room became a gathering space for retreatants, and it fills that need for today’s volunteers. A large kitchen as well as dining area are across the hall from the gathering space.  Three refrigerators provide enough space for food required for up to 20 volunteers.  A laundry room plus additional shower/restroom complete the establishment.  Our accommodations last year were in a former public elementary school turned Catholic school turned retreat house turned volunteer housing.  The former principal’s office had been made in a chapel, and Father Hanley had said Mass for us twice last year.  There was limited, inconvenient access to the shower/restrooms/laundry room, the kitchen was institutional-sized, the dining room exactly as one might expect an elementary school cafeteria to look! This year’s housing was far, far superior.

On Friday morning of our last full day, Father Chung said Mass and thanked the volunteers.  The congregation of perhaps 30, mostly Asian, kindly expressed their own thanks.  Father Chung’s homilies, as well as those by his assistant, were excellent, based on the day’s readings, brief, to the point, a few sentences to take through the day.

Our group dispersed: Jerry and John back to finishing touches on their job, the rest to Bunny’s house to paint another room.  Toni inventoried the remaining food and prepared lunch; Arlene and I cleaned the living quarters and did the laundry, preparing for departure.  After a dinner of leftovers and must-finish, several of our number walked over to the casino to try their luck – and returned with a surprisingly high win rate!  The others strolled around the neighborhood, observing the properties lost, neglected, renovated, renewed.  According to the  casino-goers, the place was full of Knights of Columbus.  As it turned out, the state-wide organization was meeting at Bl. Seelos on Saturday, but eating and lodging at IP.  Their presence was announced Saturday morning as Father Chung hurried through the retreat house, vestments over his arm, to reach the back door of the church.  That way he could vest, then greet the Knights in their capes and hats, swords at the ready, at the church entrance.  It was a big day for Bl. Seelos!

The end of the week is sad; the tasks are finished but there is much to be done; the bonds of friendship have been forged but paths will now diverge.  Our shared Mississippi experience endures.

       Mary Frances Moriarty
       July 2, 2008
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