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Waiting With Father Bart: Rebuilding St. Mary of the Angels Parish
By John Feister
The waters came and destroyed a thriving parish in the Ninth Ward. Now Father Bart Pax begins again.

Q U I C K S C A N

'Moving Forward'
Paschal Hope
Partners in Relief
We're All Waiting

I’M LOOKING for a street called Abundance,” Father Bart Pax says as he drives his car along the refuse-strewn streets of New Orleans’s devastated Ninth Ward. His car, a white Hyundai four-door, replaces a similar one he lost a year ago. That’s when the floodwaters overtook St. Mary of the Angels Parish, in the heart of this once-struggling, now gasping neighborhood.

It’s been months since the tragedy, but to the newcomer, it looks as if the hurricane had just happened. Father Bart assures me that things are looking up compared to how they looked last October, when he began his daily pilgrimages back from nearby Houma, Louisiana. Now he is among the first to have moved back, a pioneer amidst wreckage. If what I see is progress, it’s hard to imagine how bad it must have been.

Father Bart and his Franciscan community could have saved their cars and other possessions, might not have risked their own safety, but they chose instead to ride out the storm last year. This is their neighborhood, where they had thrown in their lot among the poor. With support from near and far, since 1925 the friars have done their best to help a community bring about empowerment and revitalization where, in recent decades, violence and drug dealers ruled. The weekend before last August’s storm, the parish celebrated its 80th anniversary. A new principal, Joseph Bach, was in line to start a school year the next week with record attendance. The storm changed all that.

At the time of the storm evacuation, many of the poorest, the disabled and elderly, had been left behind. After Katrina had passed on the morning of August 29, things looked damaged but essentially O.K. Then the floodwaters started rising. Levees that had protected the neighborhood for decades from nearby Lake Ponchartrain to the north, and the Industrial Canal to the east, had given way.

That morning, people from the neighborhood starting arriving at the highest ground in the community, the second and third floors of St. Mary of the Angels School. The waters rose and, unbelievably, kept rising that day. The below-sea-level bowl that is much of New Orleans started filling. Within hours the water ended up over head level, to the bottom of the street signs. As the waters rose, some residents swam to safety at St. Mary. Some were stranded on rooftops. Others—many others—drowned. The city, as everyone knows, fell into further chaos as governmental relief efforts floundered.

From that Monday until the following Thursday, those fortunate enough to get to the parish school-turned-ark waited, hoped, prayed and survived with Father Bart, pastor-turned-Noah.

One man died. For the safety of the living, Father Bart had that body put in a bag and into the waters for later recovery.

There was no communication, not even by cell phone, with anyone outside of the school. When the rescuers didn’t show up after a day and a half, food and water dwindled. Father Bart and Al Savoy, the parish maintenance man, used a pile of floating lumber from a nearby construction site to float a hundred yards from the school, past the church, to the second-floor rectory, where Father Bart knew there was some bottled water and food.

“We’re going to die here,” some said, but Father Bart kept his cool. Farewell messages were written on the classroom blackboards.

The Coast Guard helicopter arrived on the fourth day, Thursday, and began shuttling people away. Father Bart was among the last to go, assured that everyone would be rescued. Joining the thousands of refugees from across New Orleans, Father Bart eventually wound up Friday in Houston, Texas, and was taken in by fellow friars in the area.

Within weeks, he had moved to a friary in Houma, Louisiana, an hour’s drive from New Orleans. In October, when police opened the ruined city for daylight visits, Father Bart began a daily commute that lasted until this summer, interrupted only by medical treatment. In the midst of this long, slow crisis, he was diagnosed with cancer and underwent chemotherapy.

Now staying in a small FEMA trailer set up on the parish grounds, Father Bart waits and watches. Like his founder from Assisi, he is rebuilding his Church.

'Moving Forward'

Father Bart was looking for Abundance Street because he wanted me to see the neighboring parish, St. Philip, that is being merged into St. Mary as the Archdiocese of New Orleans combines resources for the rebuilding effort. St. Mary, though in a tough part of town, was a stable parish. “We were moving forward,” says Bart. The 65-year-old friar is looking healthy and energetic today, but understandably, a bit unsettled— no two days are alike. “Our income was increasing proportionately” with a growing school enrollment, he explains. “We were not growing in debt.”

Eleven years ago, this writer had visited the then-thriving parish to see what it was that made this effort so successful. That story told how, in spite of threats and violence, even murders of parishioners caught in the crossfire of senseless gang warfare, the parish had become a center of black Catholic identity and growing community empowerment. The parish had joined up with other congregations in forming “All Congregations Together,” a gathering of neighborhood organizations whose clout was felt at city hall, in the police department, at the board of education. The parishioners at St. Mary were reclaiming their neighborhood.

“It was much safer, much safer,” reflects Father Bart, comparing the neighborhood a year ago to what it had been a decade before. By 2005, the parish had a stable membership of 400-500 families, and the school’s enrollment had increased to about 285, from 250 the year before, he explains. “People just wanted to be here,” he says.

Today, in spite of massive reconstruction needs—all of the houses for miles around must be gutted and rebuilt—he’s sure that people want to come back. “People feel this is their parish home,” he explains. But with families in disarray and homes destroyed, the future is not clear.

On Easter Sunday, he held Mass at the parish for the first time, with about 150 parishioners who had come back to town for the event. It was a bittersweet day, as people saw firsthand the challenge ahead. Father Bart pensively admits, “We just don’t know.” Then he adds, with conviction, “It’s a journey in faith. We trust that as we fix the church, as we rebuild the church building, the Church will be rebuilt, too.”

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Paschal Hope

The reconstruction of the church building itself has been Father Bart’s top priority. Soon after he got back into the neighborhood, he contacted a donor who was willing to pay for repair and reshingling of the damaged roof so things wouldn’t get worse.

Next was the ruined interior of the church. When the waters rose, the pews all were destroyed. Many came loose and ended up in piles. In the midst of that ruin only one thing remained standing, untouched: the paschal candle. Sitting on a heavy base of African ebony, carved with images of the people of God holding forth the light of Christ, the candle stood as witness after the storm: Christ is still giving life to his community. On Easter, though the church was nowhere near rebuilt, the community lit the candle again as a sign of their faith.

The days I was there, not long after Easter, two workers were ripping out the water-damaged church ceiling, into piles of acoustic tile and insulation. It was an incredible mess. As the crew progressed, some of the volunteers housed in the parish school were removing the debris, one wheelbarrow at a time, into large piles out by the street. Eventually, the city would come to dispose of the piles.

“I’ve been down here almost every day for six months,” explains Father Bart of his commute from Houma. Representatives of a large volunteer program, Common Ground, found him at the parish at the end of last year and asked if they could set up a base in the parish school. The school has housed 100-200 volunteers a week, who go out into the community, clearing out ruined houses, preparing them for reconstruction.

This ministry of presence has been key to Father Bart’s waiting, because nothing is happening on a schedule. Sometimes he was simply present when a neighbor-turned-refugee would find his or her way back to the Ninth Ward to evaluate the damage. “Many would stop by and some would shed tears,” says Father Bart. “I would just cry with them.”

On more practical matters, being on the grounds can be key to getting help when it is available. The week I was there, for example, Father Bart was waiting for electricians to show up and begin repairing and rewiring. The needs are massive everywhere, so being present to make arrangements matters. At night, everything has gone dark except the few lights that come from limited power sources. And that was progress from the complete darkness that covered the neighborhood each night in the early months.

Partway through the day a call came to Father Bart’s cell phone from a Presbyterian churchworker in Cincinnati, Ohio. His church had bought a former Catholic convent for a community outreach program and would donate the chapel pews to St. Mary. It’s that kind of generosity and openness that will make the difference.

Ultimately, Father Bart is waiting for his parishioners to start returning to their nearby neighborhoods. “I did not abandon this area,” he says, “and that’s pretty important.” If the local government and the archdiocese saw that the church was abandoned, it seems likely that their efforts would turn elsewhere.

Partners in Relief

Although Father Bart often works practically alone in keeping the ball rolling for his parish, there is a lot of activity on his grounds. That’s due to the Common Ground volunteers living in the school and in tents on his parking lot. Common Ground (www.commongroundrelief.org) has housed about 10,000 volunteers since it began last September, in 15 operations, including several health clinics, across the city.

Malik Rahim, founder of the project, talks about Father Bart’s role in the community. “When you say the word Christian, he exemplifies it, because the word actually means ‘Christlike.’ He’s in this community, and he doesn’t have to be,” says Rahim. “He’s a man who has the interests of this community genuinely at heart, exemplified by what he has done to keep this parish and this school open in its time of greatest crisis.” The longtime community organizer adds, “The need is so great here, with so many people socially or economically beaten down.”

Rahim has talked to some of those who came to St. Mary for refuge at the time of the flood and they tell him, “He didn’t act like some dictator. He kept the spirit of the place, this parish, at heart.” Rahim adds, “I don’t believe anyone from this community will ever look at St. Mary’s in the same way as they did before.”

Another person who comes to the parish almost every day is Joseph Bach, principal of the temporarily closed school. He had worked in the parish years ago and returned to college to be trained as an educator. He came on board last June, poised to start the new school year. Today he picks up some textbooks from a third-floor classroom that can be put to use elsewhere. This closed school in a destroyed neighborhood, a school that he trained to serve, is a difficult place for him to be.

“At this point the archdiocese has determined that the school will not open for the time being” until they see more people moving back, says Bach. He has taken a temporary assignment in a Catholic school across town, in Algiers. Some of his families who moved back to the area are now spread among three other schools. Many others, he fears, are permanently dislocated. He says he hopes the school will eventually reopen as the community rebuilds.

Bach works to support Father Bart and keeps in touch with families as he can. “We’ve been in constant communication with the archdiocese,” says Bach. “It’s just a matter of waiting it out.” He, too, lost everything in his midtown home in the flood.

We're All Waiting

What does it mean to wait? That’s thequestion, named or unnamed, of every Christian. For Father Bart, it’s a question of faith. “One thing we understand is the Lord has blessed us in many and wondrous ways, not necessarily in the hurricane, but in our lives. So, therefore, we continue on,” he says, sounding a lot like the farmers of his birthplace in western Ohio. “And, you know,” he adds, “we appreciate those blessings; we have to carry them on, to pass them on.”

He gains strength from the witness of the volunteers, each of whom has faced scenes of massive destruction and worked in awful heat, thick humidity and often stench. “It’s not impossible to overcome, and that’s God’s will,” he matter-of-factly states. At the same time, though, he “can’t afford to” think long-term of the work ahead. “It could take forever,” he says. “That’s what it’s going to seem like, but each day we get rid of a little more junk.”

When asked if he thinks there are blessings ahead for this community, he exclaims, “No! I know there are,” then repeats, “It’s not a matter of thinking it, I know.” In the midst of it all, he experiences tremendous stress, but senses that he is dealing with it well. “I talk about it with others. And I think that part of dealing with that stress is just trying to make a small difference each day, especially at the beginning.”

In visiting Father Bart, one can’t help but think of St. Francis rebuilding the ruined church outside of Assisi. But Father Bart downplays the connection: “As Francis said on his deathbed, you know, ‘I did what was mine to do, now you do what is yours.’ But to be like Francis? Impossible.”

In the end, one is left with more questions than answers. “Can we live with that?” Father Bart asks. “I think learning to live with that is important. Seeing the growth that takes place, wherever it takes place, is important.”

So the Church waits, works, prays, grows and changes. In the devastation of the Ninth Ward, we are reminded that all that we have can be taken away, and that we’ll still be called to walk ahead in faith. From a high note descending to low, we hear the intonation, “Li-ght of Chri-ist,” from Father Bart, at Easter, as he relights the paschal candle that remained standing. Echoing his chanted descant, the gathered people sing, “Tha-anks be to Go-d,” celebrating the promise of rebirth as they put their lives back together. In the midst of devastation, as lives continue to unfold, Father Bart waits in hope. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, he’s looking for abundance.

In June, Father Bart was joined by Father William Ollendick, O.F.M., who is now serving as assistant pastor. Relief funds for the parish reconstruction are being collected by the Franciscan Missionary Union, 1615 Vine St., Cincinnati, OH 45202.


John Feister is an assistant editor of this publication who holds a B.A. in American studies from University of Dayton and master’s degrees in humanities and theology from Xavier University, Cincinnati.

 


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