Doin’ Time in Mississippi

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was a great time.

Until you have seen it, it is extremely difficult to image the total destruction and desolation along the Gulf Coast.  What was called Scenic Highway (US 90), ran from the Alabama border all the way across Mississippi to New Orleans, a distance of approximately 100 miles.  Beautiful homes graced the route, the University of Southern Mississippi occupied a prominent place west of Gulfport; the more modest homes of the towns of Edgewater Park, DeLisle, Long Beach, Waveland, Bay St. Louis, Pass Christian lay a block or two back from the water.  Now one drives from Gulfport and sees a battered gas station sign (gas was selling for $1.36 that day), SALE signs at every corner, driveways and paths leading to. . . .nowhere.  There is the occasional iron fence, gate gone, or steps to a vanished porch and home.  A mile back from the beach there are empty lots, only a concrete slab marking the homeplace of a family.  Over all stand the ancient live oaks, twisted, gnarled, broken, but standing.  More miles back are the remains of homes overwhelmed by the rising bayous.  The sense of loss and despair is ubiquitous.  Where does anybody start?

Twelve members of St. James parish (six women, six men) spent the week of April 21 – 28 in Pass Christian, Mississippi, working on four homes damaged by Katrina.
Joan Buscher, Jane Fitzgerald, Jerry Guerette, Mary Frances Moriarty, Bob Pitera, Margarette Shovlin, Sara Tindall, DeSales and Nelson Toye, and Alexander Wilson were joined by Father Dan Hanley from Saturday evening until Wednesday morning.  John Perka was the crew chief; he had been to the Pass twice in preceding weeks, making housing arrangements and identifying work sites. 
We were housed at Dedeaux Retreat Center, about 10 miles from the Pass.  The building had been a county school, then a parish school (Sacred Heart Church is next door), and now a retreat/cursillo center.  Since Katrina it has been used to house volunteers coming to the Diocese of Biloxi.  Breakfast and dinner were provided Monday through Friday; lunches were prepared by our group and taken to the work sites every morning.  During our stay there were also volunteers from Seattle, Wisconsin, Philadelphia, Connecticut, California, and Alabama.  Earlier, there had been more than 200 volunteers, predominantly spring-break students, filling every bed and whatever cots could be crowded into every available space.
Each morning work groups went from Dedeaux to an assortment of work sites.  Thanks to planning and organization on the part of Bob Crowley and John Perka, our sites were within a reasonable distance and each was home to a member of St. Paul parish in Pass Christian. Volunteers who worked through the Diocesan Office of Long Term Recovery went to widely scattered sites, some as far as Pascagoula, 80 miles away.
Among the memorable events of the week, Sunday afternoon stands out.  Because of the loss of both its church building and close to half its parishioners, St. Paul will be merged with Our Lady of Lourdes, a few miles away, and become Holy Family parish. Neither Lourdes nor St. Paul’s parishioners are happy with this arrangement, understandably.  However, because there is no place for Mass at the former St. Paul’s site, Sunday Masses are held at Our Lady of Lourdes.  Father Carver invited us to attend the 5:30 liturgy, which was celebrated by Father Hanley.  We were introduced to the congregation by Father Carver, former pastor of St. Paul. Now pastor of Holy Family, he preached on the Gospel, John 21:1-19, and said we were Christ to their Peter, bringing them the Living Bread with our work and our concern.  He closed with, “We love you.”  Together with the Holy Family congregation, we were touched, and strengthened for our work. 

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There has been a relationship between St. James in Falls Church and the Mississippi Coast since shortly after Katrina.  A picture in the Washington Post on September 12, 2005, identified St. James School in Gulfport as the first school in that part of the state to reopen.  A group of parishioners made personal commitments to send a regular contribution to Father George Kitchin, the pastor, to help our sister parish.  Pauline Meno, a guidance counselor at our own St. James  during the just-past fall semester, was in Gulfport at that time and related to us how grateful St. James in Gulfport was to St. James in Falls Church.
With the arrival of Father Posey in June, 2006, our relationship with the Gulf Coast changed.  Father Kitchin told us that he and his parish were “back on their feet” but that a parish 10 miles west, St. Paul in Pass Christian, virtually had been wiped out; he  urged us to direct our assistance to them.  When Father Posey and two parishioners visited Pass Christian in August they met Father Dennis Carver, toured the parish area, saw the devastation and desperate need, and immediately assured the pastor that we would help him and his parish in every way possible.  Subsequent collections from both the parish and the school have underlined that assurance.

In January, 2007, the first notice appeared in the bulletin asking parishioners interested in working on the Gulf Coast to call the rectory.  By March more than a dozen had responded and had completed forms designed to identify skills, tools available, and times they could go to Mississippi.  Bob Crowley worked with John Perka to identify repair and renovation jobs that would be within our skills and at the same time not too far from the Dedeaux Center. 

The group left Northern Virginia on April 21, eight by air, three by car. John Perka had been to the locale twice earlier and had made a final determination on work sites, and was at the airport to meet us.  Although the Dedeaux Center manager was not on duty during the weekend, John was able to show us the chapel, dormitory rooms, kitchen, and dining room. 

A former school, four large classrooms have been converted to dorms, two for women, two for men.  A somewhat smaller room, just left of the main door, is a chapel.  The Blessed Sacrament is not reserved, but the area is available for prayer 24 hours a day.  Father Hanley celebrated Mass there on Saturday, Monday, and Tuesday. A large central room, the former auditorium, provides sofas, easy chairs, and a TV for evening relaxation. The walls are decorated with  t-shirts signed by members of groups who have come from all over the country to help Katrina survivors. There are also a computer center and large tables, one with sun-screen, bandaids, insect repellant, etc., the other with blankets, sheets, towels, blue work shirts left by previous workers, laundered, and available to all.  During spring break the entire auditorium area plus the adjoining stage were filled with cots to accommodate the large number of workers. The dining room opened to the right of the door and an industrial-sized kitchen across the hall complete the first floor.  Women’s and men’s washrooms are on either side of the stage, down half a flight of stairs.  Washers and driers are also located there.  Each person in every group must take a turn with operational duties: assisting with meal preparation and/or clean-up, mopping kitchen and dining room floors, vacuuming chapel and dorm rooms, cleaning washrooms, doing laundry, both personal and institutional.  Each worker is given a previously worn blue “Catholic Disaster Team” shirt each day, to be put in the laundry each night.  At departure, each one is given a new shirt to take home.

Each dorm room was furnished with 10 metal double decker bunks.  (We were told they had come from a prison.)  Three-inch thick foam rubber mattresses provided minimal comfort and a metal drawer beneath each bunk provided space for personal belongings. Such close quarters could have proved disastrous; in our case it provided a remarkable opportunity for forming strong bonds of friendship and determination.

Our first job, Monday morning, was at a half-built house in what is left of central Pass Christian.  The owner told the same sad tale we heard all week: soon after Katrina, contractors had appeared with promises of repairs and demands for cash upfront.  In every case, the work was left undone, or left poorly done, and the money is gone.  The house on ---- Street  had been completed submerged, washed away.  The owner, a middle-aged woman, lives in a trailer adjacent to the site.  The new house is on stilts (like most of the rebuilt houses near the beach) and needed interior sanding, priming, painting.  While the women started the job, the men went to a nearby site to survey water damage and plan work there.  By the end of that day the house was ready for electrical and plumbing work, to be done by licensed contractors.

The second job, on L’Adnier Street, is the home of Hank and Athalia Piernas, both descendants of early settlers. Their home had been immersed in water up to the second floor and required cleaning as well as repairing.  Like so manay others, they lost almost everything, including pictures – often the most-mourned of lost effects.  A little past middle age, they had paid more than $25,000 to a contractor who had left work undone, and found themselves living in a FEMA trailer with little money left to finish the job. Their home had been the gathering place for the entire extended family as well as the site of numerous weddings and receptions; its loss was felt on many levels.  John Perka and his men’s group had spent several hours there on Monday.  On Tuesday they went to the home of Edward and Pat Taconi a few miles out, while the women, joined by Jerry Guerette, tackled the Piernas home, priming and painting inside and out: closet doors, French doors, sofits, fascias, outside doors, windows, gables, trim, eaves, many requiring two coats.  It was a hard, hot two days; to show their gratitude, Mrs. Piernas served a delicious lunch on Tuesday: baked chicken, baked beans, rice, green beans Creole, biscuits, drinks, dessert.  Southern hospitality!

At noon on the second day at the Piernas home, the work crew went across the street to the Good Will Missionary Baptist Church where the Church Ladies serve lunch each Wednesday to anyone who cares to come.  They had been serving in a nearby tent for months, but they are now back in their repaired, renovated church hall. This time there was barbequed chicken, baked chicken, “dirty rice,” barbequed beans, cole slaw, tossed green salad, home made rolls, banana pudding, cookies, and drinks.  Among the guests, in addition to our own group, were about 20 members of the church and a dozen Mennonites.  The Mennonites have had a presence in Pass Christian since shortly after the hurricane hit and continue to build, renovate, repair.

Second only to our Sunday Mass with Holy Family parishioners was a memorable interlude on Wednesday afternoon.  Earlier in the day, FEMA workers had removed blocks from under the trailer that had been the Piernas home since October, 2005.  In mid-afternoon, descending from ladders and leaving paint buckets, we watched the trailer being hauled away!  Several extended-family members joined us to celebrate. Not only was the trailer gone but the interior and exterior of the house were painted and ready for a big family gathering.

On Thursday our well-oiled machine again divided: the men went to the home of Lisa LaFraiox on Rebecca Street, while the women took on finishing work at the Taconi home.  Although several miles from the beach, there was considerable water damage.  The storm surge had not only swept over the town on the beach but had also overwhelmed St. Louis Bay and raised the water level of Bayou Portage north of the town, which then flooded the entire area.  The water was more than five feet high inside the house, and the surrounding acreage was totally submerged.  Ed Taconi showed us an 1881 clock, still running, with the water/mud/debris level clear on the face. Building on work done by the men the day before, the women proceeded to sand, prime, and paint the living room and kitchen as well as vacuum, and left the house almost ready for occupancy.  Although the FEMA trailer was still on the premises (the stove was not yet installed nor were the kitchen cabinets hung), the house is habitable, the owners happy. It should be noted that the Taconis had also paid a large amount of money to a contractor who left, taking the money, leaving the work undone.

Following the pattern of earlier days, the women’s group followed the men into a home left half-done.  Lisa LaFraiox lives on Rebecca Street in a new subdivision.  The two bedroom home had both wind and water damage.  The interior had been blown out; a new stove had been installed and a few furnishings were strewn about.  All the closets needed doors, as did the laundry area; there was no framing around the windows, and the living room had not been painted.  John Perka left mid-day, returning to Falls Church for the wedding of old friends, leaving a group of nine to finish the job.  (Father Hanley left on Wednesday; Mary Frances remained at the retreat center with a list of non-skilled jobs.)
When the owner pulled into her driveway that evening, and walked into the house, she wept with joy.  The framing, the doors, the painting: all had been completed.

Tired, but with a sense of accomplishment, the St. James 10 took Father Carver to dinner at Vrazel’s Fine Foods, a restaurant owned and operated by Deacon Bill Vrazel.  Enjoying one another’s company as well as excellent food, we had the opportunity to talk with Father Carver and learn more about the Pass Christian community as well as some of its history.  Everything we have learned about The Pass encourages us to return.

A Little History

A crescent of off-shore islands form the southernmost reach of Mississippi Sound, just north of the Gulf.  In 1747, on the feast of St. Louis, Captain Nicholas Christian L’Adnier found a pass between the Sound and what is now named St. Louis Bay.  He named the settlement he founded to the east of the bay Pass Christian.  The surprisingly Catholic area has its genesis in the French and Spanish influences from Mobil on the east to New Orleans on the west.
There has been a Catholic church on what is now named Scenic Drive (US 90) since 1842. Three burned, two were swept away. The fourth stood until Camille in 1963, and was replaced by a large circular dome for a “church in the round,” seen in many places after Vatican II.  Within sight of the Gulf, glistening in the sunlight, parishioners prayed and celebrated Mass. On August 26(?)2005 the ocean surge came in at the far southeastern corner at 30 feet high, and swept through the building, out the far northwest corner. (Father Carver had taken the Blessed Sacrament and the holy oils to safety.)  The only remaining artifacts were the hanging image of the Risen Christ and the stained glass windows.
Also destroyed on the six acre church property were the rectory, the church office building, a gym, two school buildings, a library, a storage shed, and Damascus House.  The latter was a 130 year old “cottage” used for adult education with unique and valuable stained glass windows.  Swept into the street, it was bulldozed by the Corps of Engineers the day after Katrina, before the windows could be saved.
Six houses were swept into the cemetery a block away, and rested on the graves.  The Catholic Cemetery Associations of New York and Chicago sent crews who carefully dismantled the houses.  So carefully was it done that only one grave was compromised.  Those remains were released to the coroner who identified them and notified family members.  That procedure took well over a year, but the body is now back in the cemetery.
The first baptisms in the records of St. Paul Church were those of the children of black slaves of local townspeople.  According to Father Carver, the community was totally integrated.  Sisters of Mercy taught in the parish school: white children in the morning, black children in the afternoon.
In 1907 Josephite Fathers established a parish for the black community, Mother of Mercy.  That church, two blocks off the beach, was damaged but not destroyed.  A small  jewel, its renovation is nearly complete, and there is hope the parishioners will be celebrating Pentecost in church rather than in the adjoining community center.  Recent volunteers have repaired and repainted the statues of the Sacred Heart and Our Lady.
While there is talk of merging parishes up and down the coast, Mother of Mercy is hearing nothing of that.  Their parish council has determined that they will remain as they were, and the bishop has agreed.  The case of St. Paul is different.  There is strong sentiment on the part of parishioners to rebuild on the same site.  But as Father Carver pointed out, five churches have been destroyed on that site.  It has been determined by the bishop that St. Paul will merge with Our Lady of Lourdes, three miles away, in Pineville, the new parish to be called Holy Family.  The present church will be torn down and a new, larger church, erected in Pineville. There will also be a new school, named St. Vincent de Paul in honor of the Knights of Columbus, who bought a skating rink for a temporary church and school in Pass Christian.  (St Vincent de Paul is also the patron of volunteers, so you might say the new school will be named for us, too.)
The parishioners at St. Paul as well as Lourdes are unhappy, understandably.  There appears to be no other solution to the dilemma of serving a reduced population (1200 families before Katrina, 700 now) with reduced funds and reduced priests (Lourdes had been served by Trinitarians before the hurricane).    Father Carver hopes to construct a small replica of the first wooden church on the original site, with an accompanying plaque identifying and memorializing the old St. Paul.
It’s a start.
       Mary Frances Moriarty  5-4-07
Mary Frances Moriarty, went to Pass Christian MS this Spring 2007
and writes of her experience in the rebuilding effort.