Maine church remembered for Katrina aid

Posted Aug. 28, 2008, at 9:35 p.m.

Walking the soft, white sandy beach of Biloxi, Miss., on a recent summer day offered a peaceful view. Three years ago today, it was anything but, and, on closer examination, the remnants of that tumultuous time are still evident.

A piece of roofing and a scrap of cinderblock poke through the water in the Gulf of Mexico, offering glimpses of what was a living nightmare that now is spoken of as though it were a household name: Katrina.

The hurricane that invaded Biloxi and neighboring communities beginning on Aug. 29, 2005, shattered lives throughout Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas.

“People’s lives are on the ocean’s floor,” said Roland Wilson, a native of the Millinocket area of Maine and 17-year resident of Biloxi. “Yet it’s amazing how far we’ve come in that short time because people mean business around here.”

Angie Thompson of Gautier, Miss., who frequently travels to Maine, wistfully recalls her home area: “All my life when I drove through Biloxi and Gulfport, I daydreamed about those beautiful mansions, and now there is not even a trace of them,” she said. “I can’t explain the beauty that got washed away.”

Katrina’s footprints are obvious here even to the unsuspecting eye. As powerful as the devastation was, the spirit of renewal and revitalization is also strong. From new laws and businesses rebuilding to broadcasting companies and churches boasting a reconstruction of the community together, Mississippi is full of energy.

“A lot of people have changed their attitude toward life, a lot of lessons were learned,” said the Rev. Joseph Uko of St. John the Evangelist Church in Gulfport, Miss.

St. John’s was one of many churches to receive monetary donations from efforts in Maine spearheaded by the Rev. Robert Vaillancourt who at the time was the pastor of St. Matthew’s Catholic Church in Hampden and St. Gabriel’s of Winterport. Churches of all faiths in the Bangor area joined these two churches in offering aid.

St. John the Evangelist was supported because Vaillancourt and some parishioners had crossed paths with the Gulfport congregation while on a pilgrimage only a month before Katrina hit.

“We met in Germany for World Youth Day and then joined in Mass at the Chapel of the Miraculous Medal in Paris while journeying home,” said Vaillancourt, noting that the pastor of St. John the Evangelist, the Rev. Chris Munsch, was new to the priesthood at the time.

Lynn Ryan of Hampden, who was on that European journey, recalled a key encounter. “Father Bob had us pray over Father Chris before the close of Mass. Later I inquired of Father Bob as to why, and he replied that he felt Father Chris was facing a heavy burden and needed prayers. The next month Katrina hit.”

It was after Katrina devastated the region that the grounds of St. Matthew’s in Hampden transformed into a production line of goods being packaged, labeled, loaded and shipped to ravaged Opelousas and Ponchatoula Louisiana. If it wasn’t toothbrushes, backpacks, mattresses or baby formula that went south, it was money to help rebuild. “Our dream was to fill up one big truck of supplies, but God filled up three,” Vaillancourt said.

St. John the Evangelist was just one of 56 churches and missions in the Diocese of Biloxi that suffered from Katrina, according to Shirley Henderson, diocesan spokeswoman. The estimated cost to the diocese was $70 million, including damage to churches, rectories, schools and parish halls, Henderson said. Insurance has covered about half that amount, she said.

Much work and healing was ahead.

Upon being named the parish’s pastor for St. John’s in June 2006, Uko had a priority list.

“We had to get the families back to church as quickly as possible, and we still have not fully recovered,” Uko said. “Two hundred and sixty-seven families have moved away and others are challenged and say God has not treated them well; they are overwhelmed,” he said.

Returning recently from a funeral, Uko said, “I just saw two families today who say they are coming back. We’ll see, but despite this we have come a long way as a parish.”

Despite the challenges left by Katrina, Uko wears a bright smile that masks any sign of distress as the area continues to heal.

Sister Mary Kealy of St. John the Evangelist has not for a moment forgotten the generosity of St. Matthew’s and other churches. “I have the greatest memories of people from Maine and many other states — from all over — helping us. You need so much help with a magnitude of a storm like this was.”

Deacon Gayden Harper, director of pastoral services of the Catholic Diocese of Biloxi, also praised the assistance efforts. “Unless you have experienced this, there is no way to articulate what this support has meant to us,” he said. “Tons of clothes came in to the area, and we never knew where they came from.”

Thompson saw this generosity blanket her neighborhood. “The coolest thing ever was when clothes were donated. There was no storage, so they were stockpiled in a local parking lot for people to pick through. I saw many, many people pulling out blue jeans and things out of these piles of clothes, and this meant so much to these people,” she said.

It’s hard to say exactly where those goods originated, but Vaillancourt received many letters of appreciation. The Rev. John Presley of the First Baptist Church in Ponchatoula, La., wrote: “The tractor-trailer full of goodies was such a blessing for so many people.”

The Rev. Cuthbert O’Connell of St. Clare Catholic Church in Waveland, Miss., who celebrated Mass from a Quonset hut after the hurricane, wrote, “Life has changed but not ended.”

As Wilson walks along the ocean’s edge, he quickly points out a powerful example of the renewal and rebuilding of this community. “Those trees were decimated after Katrina, and a local artist carved them into pelicans, dolphins and much more,” which are now featured on post cards.

Munsch recognizes the spirit, too. “Yes, we have come a long way since that dreary August day and ‘bright smiles of rebirth’ are blooming everywhere.”

People interested in helping should contact the Diocese of Biloxi, 1790 Popps Ferry Road, Biloxi, MS 39532.

Anne Gabbianelli O’Reilly is a free-lance writer who lives in Hampden and is a member of St. Matthew’s Catholic Church

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