100 miles from home, pastor celebrates Mass for evacuee parishioners

By Peter Finney Jr.
Catholic News Service

GONZALES, La. (CNS) -- For Father Frank Lipps and 300 of his evacuee parishioners from Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Violet, about 100 miles southeast of Gonzales, this was no ordinary Mass.

Father Lipps, pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes, celebrated a reunion Mass Oct. 8 for his displaced parishioners at St. Mark Church in Gonzales, where he has been in residence since the unprecedented flooding caused by Hurricane Katrina destroyed the homes of nearly all of his parishioners and obliterated their recently dedicated church.

St. Mark Church was so crowded with Our Lady of Lourdes parishioners that ushers had to set up folding chairs along the back and side walls to accommodate the overflow.

Father Joel LaBauve, pastor of St. Mark and one of the concelebrants, hosted a jambalaya reception for the evacuees after the Mass.

Reflecting on the Gospel passage in which Christ cautions his disciples to prepare well for the journey or risk being shut out of the wedding feast, Father Lipps drew parallels to his preparation for fishing trips he used to take with his parishioners.

"I've always been accused of taking too much," Father Lipps said. "But I liked to bring everything I needed for the trip. Christ is not saying the wedding feast is a place. But he's going to set out everything you need, including the wedding garments you are supposed to wear. He wants us to be perfectly happy."

Recalling the struggles and the blessings of the last six weeks, Father Lipps urged everyone in church -- evacuees and those hosting evacuee families -- to help each other out.

"For all of us who are on this journey, if you need some time and need to share what you have gone through, we need to listen," Father Lipps said. "If you run into someone who needs an ear, you need to back off and just listen. If you run into somebody else who needs food or money or gas, you need to do that. We're on a journey, and Christ has called us to the wedding feast. ... Make sure you have everything you need for this journey.

"No matter what you need, he's going to make sure you get it. Has he not done so already on your journey?"

Among the Our Lady of Lourdes parishioners was Dr. Joe Johnson, a Meraux internist and pulmonary specialist, his wife, Colleen, their three children and his parents. Johnson's 7,000-square-foot house was swamped with 10 feet of water, destroying the first floor and prompting the Johnsons to question whether they should ever return. They lost three automobiles.

"It's too soon," Colleen Johnson told the Clarion Herald, newspaper of the New Orleans Archdiocese. "But right now I haven't heard of anyone going back. It looks like an atomic bomb went off."

"I'm not going back," Joe Johnson said. "It looks like a ship sank and then they raised it. I'm a lung specialist, and I'm not bringing my family back into that."

In their loss, the Johnsons have found small victories. They had such a big house that they did not see each other much because they were closed up in different areas.

"We were living in a 7,000-square-foot house and now we're in a living room looking at each other," Joe Johnson said. "For me personally, it actually taught me that I shouldn't worry about the next day and what I've got and what I don't have. It's basically a lesson that all these things on earth we don't need. What's important is our health, our family and our relationship with God."

"I'm like everyone else," Colleen Johnson said. "I have my good days and my bad days. But these are just materialistic things. Our family is OK and we're going to move on. It puts everything into perspective."

Father Lipps asked for five men to help remove statues, the tabernacle and some old stained-glass windows from Our Lady of Lourdes Church. He said, jokingly, that he was going to ask the ladies to clean the church "when we can find shovels for you."

Copyright (c) 2005 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops

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