LAST AUGUST Hurricane Katrina roared ashore
on the Gulf Coast, leaving massive damage
and destruction in its wake. But if that wasn’t
enough, in the days following, the levees protecting
the city of New Orleans gave way,
flooding 80 percent of the city and spurring a disaster that
will take years from which to recover.
Those events touched the lives of all the city’s residents.
Some have decided to stay and rebuild, others have moved
on. Each of them has a story. Here are just three.
Sisters of the Holy Family: 'Our Lives Would Never Be the Same'
The night before Hurricane Katrina made landfall
in New Orleans, Sister Sylvia Thibodeaux,
head of the Sisters of the Holy Family Congregation
in New Orleans, says she had a strange sense
that this hurricane was going to be different.
“I realized the night before I left that we would
not find our facilities in the same way. I had a
deep sense of that. It was obvious to me that this
was the big one. This was going to be the one that
we would not survive,” she says.
Sister Sylvia spoke with me in late April on an
upper floor of the congregation’s motherhouse
on Chef Menteur Highway in the Gentilly section
of New Orleans. The bottom two floors were
still being renovated. As we entered the building,
she assured me that the toxic mold had been
cleared from the building, but added that it was still not back to live-in condition. She
and some of the other sisters are currently
living in trailers provided by
FEMA, and are trying to chart a new
course for the 138-member congregation,
which was founded in 1842 by Sister
Henriette Delille, a free woman of
On the morning of August 27, Sister
Sylvia and the other sisters began leaving
the motherhouse in five-minute
intervals in a caravan of cars, vans and
ambulances. They had contracted with
a local ambulance company to assist
them with the evacuation process.
That process was nearly derailed,
however, when one of the ambulance
drivers diverted to the Superdome. He
said the governor had given directives
that no essential vehicle was to leave
the city after 9 a.m.
Sister Sylvia says, “I just sat there and
prayed for inspiration that God would
lead me to what to say because I had the
most vulnerable sisters. I didn’t know
what was going to happen in the Superdome,
but I just had a feeling that was
not the best place for them.”
She told the ambulance driver they
would not stay at the Superdome and
that if necessary she would contact her
lawyers because this was a breach of
contract. “In five minutes,” she says,
“we were on our way. I know that God
directed us at that point.”
The sisters then made their way to
three different previously arranged destinations:
Regency House, Naomi
Heights and Maryhill Renewal Center.
After about two weeks, those sisters
staying at the Maryhill Renewal Center
in Pineville felt they were imposing and
sought out new accommodations. They
found them courtesy of Bishop William
P. Friend in Shreveport, Louisiana.
Sister Sylvia says the bishop could
not have been more gracious to them. “We were treated like queens,” she says,
adding that the sisters will be forever
grateful to him and all those who
helped them in their time of need.
The active sisters immediately found
work in the public schools, due to the
increase in the student population
caused by the evacuation. Throughout
the course of the relocation process,
seven of the sisters died. Sister Sylvia
believes the stress of the evacuation
played a role in those deaths.
Eventually, though, the sisters knew
they would have to come home. New
Orleans Archbishop Alfred Hughes told
Sister Sylvia how important the sisters’
charism was to the city.
When Sister Sylvia first returned to
New Orleans in October, she says, “The
minute I stepped on the property, I
knew that change was inevitable and
from that moment on we would not be
able to live in the same way.”
In fact, the grounds surrounding the
motherhouse still bear the scars of last
August. The trees and grass are just
beginning to show signs of life, and a
few flowers are poking up here and there. But the neighborhood next to the
property is deserted. A shed sits atop a
house. The back end of another house
is gone. A child’s plastic chair is stuck
high up in a tree, a sign of the floodwaters’
What she saw, she says, “was painful.
But it was all over the city. It was obvious
that nature is the great equalizer.
Everybody was going through the same
thing—every street, every block, every
area of the city.”
In the flooding that followed the
hurricane, the motherhouse sustained
heavy damage under four to five feet of
toxic floodwater. The chapel on the
first floor suffered the most damage.
But the motherhouse was not the
only ministry of the sisters that was
affected. The primary ministry of the
Sisters of the Holy Family has historically
been education and care of the
“We minister from birth to death.
And we have done that for 164 years,”
says Sister Sylvia.
The oldest of the sisters’ ministries sat
behind the motherhouse. St. Mary’s
Academy is an all-girls school that the
sisters have run since 1867. It was originally
located on Orleans Avenue in
the French Quarter.
But for now the school’s nine buildings
sit empty, the victim of $4 million
in flood damage. The sisters had the
maximum amount of flood insurance
they could carry—one million dollars.
Last year, the school operated as part of
a joint operation with Xavier Prep and
St. Augustine, called MAX Prep. This
year it will reopen in a building donated
by the archdiocese, offering co-ed
classes from pre-kindergarten to grade
eight and all-girl classes in grades nine
Across the street from the motherhouse
sits Lafon Nursing Home, which
the sisters run. Twenty-two of its
residents died in the flooding. The
administrators of the nursing home
had decided not to evacuate because
they judged the residents to be too
weak. The sisters are currently under
investigation for not evacuating the
And some of the sisters’ ministries
will not continue. The House of Holy Family, which had provided free education
to children in first through third
grades, sustained major damage in the
flooding and was torn down.
In addition, the sisters also operate
Delille Inn and St. John Berchman
Manor, as well as Lafon Daycare Center,
all of which sustained damage from
the hurricane and flooding. In all,
repairs to the sisters’ properties exceed
A Re-founding Moment
Hurricane Katrina, says Sister Sylvia,
was a “re-founding moment for us. It’s
painful, but it is affording us an opportunity
to look at everything—to look at
how we minister and what we will be
able to continue to do because we’re an
The median age of the congregation’s
members is 74, and many of
them will not be able to return to full-time
She says, “We will have to reduce
the ministries and live in a very different
way. Many of our ministries will be
a ministry of presence. We will continue
to be a support, but we realize
more and more the ministries we do
continue we will have to transfer to
lay leadership. We think that can happen
Inspiration From the Sisters
Throughout this whole experience, Sister
Sylvia says she has been most
impressed with “the resiliency of our
sisters—to be able to survive through all
of this—not giving up, to continue to
want to live out our charisms. I think
the living out of that impressed me,
and their strong faith.”
She says what they need most now
are prayers. “We need prayers to continue
to live as we are, to not lose hope,
to continue to do God’s work.” They
could also, of course, use any financial
donations, gift cards, supplies, books or
magazine subscriptions (their library
was on the first floor of the motherhouse)
and even a retired treasurer to
help them sort out their finances. In
short, their needs are many.
She adds that they also appreciate
other gestures of kindness they have
received. “We have a whole album of letters that people have sent—encouraging
letters, people who know us, our
former students, friends of the community,
alumni members. We want to
hear from them.”
Looking Toward the Future
For now, the congregation is slowly moving
forward in uncharted territory. Some
of the sisters are still teaching in the
areas to which they evacuated, such as
Shreveport. Others have returned to
New Orleans. For the sisters who are no
longer in active ministry, the congregation
has purchased two houses in nearby
Alexandria to serve as assisted-living
facilities. And while the sisters did return
to New Orleans for their annual retreat
early this summer, they will spend the
hurricane season away from the city.
“In the fall we’ll bring back those
who are able to make the journey. The
sisters in the nursing home will remain
there. We will not bring them home,”
says Sister Sylvia.
In June, Sister Sylvia ended her service
as head of the congregation. When
we spoke, she said she was “looking
forward to that because this was quite
a way to end it.” But then she quickly
pointed out, “I will do whatever I can
to continue to help the community.”
She says what the sisters are concerned
about “is that we continue our
mission to the poor children and elderly.
But we realize that Katrina and
the times have forced us to change. We
will continue to work and serve the
poor, but we also have to work at ways
in which those who have, help us serve
those who do not have.”
The Sisters of the Holy Family may
be contacted at 6901 Chef Menteur
Highway, New Orleans, LA 70126.
Oswald Family: 'God Led Us To This Point'
While many people have decided to
return to New Orleans and rebuild, the
reality is that many have decided not to
return. Scott and Lisa Oswald and their
children, Christine and Robby, are one
of those families who made the decision
to start over somewhere else. It was
not, however, an easy decision.
Scott is a native of New Orleans. He
and Lisa met when she was on a traveling
nursing assignment to the city.
And it’s where they were raising their
family in a two-story house in the Lakeview
section of New Orleans. St.
Dominic was their parish and their
They had ridden out hurricanes
before. They knew how to prepare for
them and understood the risks.
But, as Scott says, “I’m stubborn.
Years ago, everybody stayed. Nobody
used to evacuate. That seems to be more
of a new thing, but I guess the risks
have been getting greater because the
marshlands are not there like they used
They thought they were successfully
riding out this hurricane, too, until the
17th Street Levee broke. “Then the
water started coming and we weren’t so
fine anymore,” says Scott. Still, both he
and Lisa kept telling themselves that the
water would go down the next day.
But it didn’t. Eventually, the water
reached the ceiling of the first floor.
“It was scary,” remembers 10-year-old
But her parents say she and her
brother did great throughout the whole
experience. “We just kept telling the
kids, ‘Pretend you’re on Survivor and
this is the next challenge,’” says Scott.
When they realized the water wasn’t
receding, Scott and Lisa decided it was
time to leave—and when they believe
God took over.
“Throughout the process,” Scott says,
“everything just fell into place—even
when you tried to screw up. It was
almost like God said, ‘No, I’ve got a
better choice for you.’” In fact, Scott
says he could go on for days with examples.
'What More Do You Want?'
One of those examples was the canoe
that floated past their house and lodged
against a tree. Lisa jokingly told Scott
that he should go and get it. Scott says
he had had enough of the water by then and decided just to keep an eye on
the canoe. Each time he saw it, though,
he “started to think about a joke about
a guy that gets caught in a flood.”
In the joke, two boats and a helicopter
come to rescue the man. Each
time he tells them, “Don’t worry, the
Lord will take care of me.” He eventually
drowns, and when he goes to
heaven, he asks why the Lord didn’t
take care of him. God’s response is, “I
sent you two boats and a helicopter.
What more did you want?”
Scott says the punch line struck a
chord. “I said, ‘You know what? How
much longer is he going to keep this
canoe here saying, “What more do you
want?”’” So Scott swam out and got
the canoe. He and Lisa spent the next
morning going around helping neighbors.
But, he says, “It finally came to a
point when we realized things were
not going to get better and we decided
it was time to move on.”
They evacuated with Scott’s parents,
his sister, brother-in-law and their
daughter, and Lisa’s dad, who had been
in New Orleans visiting.
They were going to try to canoe out,
but luckily a motorboat passed by right
at that time.
After being evacuated, they traveled
to Cincinnati, Ohio, where Lisa is from
originally and most of her large
extended family live.
In Search of Normalcy
After a few months, they say they made
the difficult decision to stay in Cincinnati.
They enrolled the kids in school
at St. Dominic Parish in Delhi and
bought a house.
The deciding factor, they say, was
the kids. “I think it was mostly because
we felt like we could get the kids back
to normal life as quickly as possible.
And, once we got them into St.
Dominic here, they were just so wonderful
to us,” says Lisa. “We just felt like
somehow God led us to this point.”
They both say their faith has been an
incredible help throughout this experience.
But Scott adds, “When people
ask you, ‘Has this changed your faith?’,
it’s almost kind of under the assumption
that your faith wasn’t that strong
prior to the hurricane. So, to say my
faith is stronger now, I don’t know. I
don’t know if it’s any stronger. I think
it’s just reinforced.”
Paying It Forward
The family is now focusing on returning
the help they received.
Lisa says, “People brought us so
many clothes, people sent us money,
and after we finally got our insurance
money and all that worked out, we
tried to offer to give it back. Anybody
we’d talk to just said to pay it forward.
And so we’ve been trying to do that as
much as we can.”
As for the kids, Lisa and Scott say
they are both adjusting well. The former
St. Dominic Dragons are now St.
Dominic Blackhawks. Lisa says her son,
who is eight, has easily acclimated. “As
soon as he sees boys with a ball or
something, he’s happy.” It was a little
harder for her daughter, but it was not
for lack of kids making her feel welcome.
In fact, they were “almost too nice to
her,” says Scott, “to the point where she
felt like, ‘I just want to be normal. I
don’t want everybody staring at me,
treating me nice.’ I think everybody
just wants to be back to a normal routine.”
So that is what they are focusing on.
Both Christine and Robby say they are
enjoying their new friends and their
new big backyard, complete with a basketball
court, swimming pool and trampoline.
There are things they still miss about
New Orleans, though, mostly their
friends and the food. Mom and Dad
echo that sentiment. But they are finding
ways to cope.
For Robby’s First Communion in
May, Lisa and Scott had crawfish
shipped up from New Orleans. Surprisingly,
says Lisa, her family enjoyed
them. “Next time we’ll have to order
more,” she says with a smile.
Archbishop Hughes: 'Facing a Daunting Challenge'
You’ll have to excuse New Orleans Archbishop
Alfred C. Hughes if he feels
more tired than usual. It’s pretty understandable
given the fact that, in addition
to being affected by Hurricane
Katrina personally, he’s also trying to
care for the city’s Catholics—both those
who stayed and those who didn’t.
I talked with Archbishop Hughes at
his office this past April, the same week
the archdiocese moved back into its
offices. Throughout the interview he
mirrored the wide range of emotions
you see in many New Orleans residents.
One minute he spoke with great hope
and pride at the Church’s efforts toward
rebuilding and then would wipe away
tears when he talked of the suffering
this tragedy has caused.
Outside his office hangs the motto: “Rooted in Faith—Open to God’s
Grace.” And he is choosing to see the
events of last August as just that—a
moment of grace.
“Did you know that Katrina means
‘cleansing’?” he asks. “In the Bible, in
the sacraments, water is a sign of cleansing,
For him, then, this is a moment of
opportunity in the midst of rebuilding—an opportunity, he says, to work
on issues such as poverty, racial issues,
health care and many others, all of
which the city has long struggled with,
even before the hurricane.
That does not mean, however, he
isn’t fully aware of what that entails.
“We are facing a daunting challenge,”
The Disaster's Reality
Of the 1,244 buildings in the archdiocese,
387 were flooded and 864 suffered
wind damage. Many suffered both.
Facing a $40 million budget deficit as
a result of ministries that were not up and running and a drop in collections
due to the large number of people who
had evacuated, Archbishop Hughes had
to make some hard decisions, including
letting employees go and closing
“I had to let them go so that they
could get assistance because I couldn’t
pay them. But it was still hard to communicate
that to them,” he says. Since
then, the archdiocese has been able to
rehire some of those who were laid off,
but not all.
Another step in the archdiocese’s
recovery plan went into effect on March
15, 2006, when it implemented a pastoral
plan for the next two years. That
plan addresses the closing and merging
of parishes in light of reduced numbers
of parishioners and resources.
It was not an easy thing to do, the
archbishop says, because “it was the
priests and parishioners who were
already suffering.” He emphasizes, however,
that the plan is flexible, in case a
larger number of parishioners return
He cites his reconsideration of the
closing of St. Augustine, a move that
generated quite a bit of controversy, as
proof of that flexibility. In April, the
archbishop said he would reexamine
the parish’s status in 18 months as to
whether or not it would be consolidated
with another parish.
The Church's Response
Despite the challenges faced by the
archdiocese itself, Archbishop Hughes
says he is proud of the way the Catholic
Church has responded. In the days and
weeks following the disaster, the archdiocese
distributed more than 20 million
pounds of food and nearly $1
million in direct food aid through its
organizations such as Second Harvest
Food Bank. Priests ministered in the
areas to which they had evacuated.
Last Thanksgiving weekend, Catholic
Charities of the Archdiocese of New
Orleans established Operation Helping
Hands (www.arch-no.org), a community
outreach program. It was formed
to mobilize volunteers from across
the country to help seniors, the disabled
and those with little or no
flood insurance clear their homes
that were devastated by the hurricane
The archbishop set up temporary
administrative headquarters for the
archdiocese in the Diocese of Baton
Rouge. He met first daily, then weekly,
monthly and now on a less frequent
basis with the priests of the archdiocese
to address both their needs and the
needs of their parishioners. He also
served on Mayor Ray Nagin’s Bring
Back New Orleans Commission.
Archbishop Hughes says that, if this
experience has taught him anything, “it
is the importance of priestly ministry
and the power of the ministry of presence.”
The archbishop himself often
traveled to shelters to listen to the stories
of evacuees. He says he was touched
by the fact that many of them were
requesting Bibles, rosaries, prayer books
or other faith-related items.
The recovery efforts have also reaffirmed
for him the importance of having
the right people in the right
positions. In particular, he mentions
the superintendent of schools and the
director of religious education. The
archdiocese has been able to reopen
107 of its 142 parishes and 81 of the
He is encouraging priests of the archdiocese
to think outside the box—or
parish buildings—in terms of ways to
minister to their congregations, which
are often now scattered. He sent a letter
to evacuees, asking them things
such as where they are and what they
need. The surveys were then distributed
to the pastors.
“Pastors who found creative ways to
reconnect have a higher number of
returning parishioners,” he says.
The city of New Orleans and the archdiocese
face years of rebuilding on
many levels. The archbishop, however,
Last November, he sent a letter to
members of the archdiocese. In it he
said, “As we continue together the work
of recovery and move toward the decisions
for rebuilding, I beg patience, collaboration
and understanding with one
another. God has given us a unique
opportunity to focus on people rather
than on buildings, on faith rather than
on personal need, on our care for one
another rather than on preoccupation
Susan Hines-Brigger is an assistant editor of this
publication. She traveled to New Orleans in April.