Catholics in Alabama fishing town look to rebuild lives after storm

By Carol Zimmermann
Catholic News Service

BAYOU LA BATRE, Ala. (CNS) -- The first sign of trouble in the small fishing village of Bayou La Batre is the muddy 60-foot shrimp boat washed ashore and tilted to its side.

The boat, in full view during a Sunday morning outdoor Mass Sept. 11 for St. Margaret parishioners, served as a constant reminder of the damage caused by Hurricane Katrina, not that these parishioners needed any reminders. Many in the town had lost everything in the storm.

Near the coast, all that remained of houses were the wooden pilings. The wooden frames, furniture and belongings were tossed about 100 feet away in the woods. Homes farther inland had been soaked in water surges that covered their entire first floors.

Many of the town's 2,300 residents also lost their jobs in the fishing industry devastated because fish processing plants were destroyed and pollution is harming the waters once rich with oysters, crabs and shrimp.

The early morning Mass was held in a pavilion by the bayou, since the church was water-damaged. The sunshine, clear sky, pelicans overhead and flapping U.S. flag belied the struggles for this small community known by many as the home of Bubba in the "Forrest Gump" movie.

At the beginning of Mass, the pastor, Father Tim Evans, urged his congregation to do something a little different.

"We all need to give each other a hug," he said to the crowd of about 150 people sitting in metal folding chairs under the pavilion and in folding chairs they brought from home and set on the browned, soggy grass along the pavilion's edge.

In his homily, he urged parishioners to "come together and take care of each other," noting that in all the ugliness of the storm they should also recognize "beauty coming out" in the compassion shown to those in need.

The priest also said he knew everyone was tired and worn out from coping with the storm's damage. He told them they could "be re-energized by God's love, which gives us strength, courage and the will to push on."

He said he finds himself telling people that God is not to blame for the hurricane that now provides an opportunity for "God's love to shine through."

"We see God's love when someone says, 'We love you, here's a blue tarp,' or 'We love you, here's some food,'" he added. "God is more present now than we were ever aware of before."

At the end of Mass, but before the final blessing, there were at least 20 minutes of announcements. Most of them were strong urgings for parishioners to get necessary help and not to be too proud to accept it. There was also discussion about repairing the church, rectory and school, no longer open but used for church functions, and a request for volunteers to help inventory all church items damaged in the storm, even down to rosaries and hymnals.

At the end of Mass, no one seemed ready to rush home, especially given their condition. Many parishioners spoke with Marilyn King, director of Catholic Social Services for the Mobile Archdiocese, and filled out forms listing their needs.

Boxes of donated clothes and cleaning supplies were set out on a table and on the grass. A Knights of Columbus group started cooking food behind the church parking lot for a free lunch of hot dogs, hamburgers and jambalaya they were offering people in the town.

Parishioners who spoke with Catholic News Service after Mass included lifelong residents of Bayou La Batre and people who had moved there in recent years for fishing jobs. St. Margaret Church, which is nearly 100 years old and has 400 members, is right in the center of town and known by most as "the big church."

Every year, for nearly 60 years, the priests of St. Margaret have blessed the vessels and the fishermen. Virtually all the businesses in the town, considered the seafood capital of Alabama, are directly or indirectly tied to the fishing fleet.

The blessing of the fleet grew into a national festival with thousands of visitors flocking to Bayou La Batre for the two-day event. Mobile Archbishop Oscar H. Lipscomb has officiated at the blessing of the fleet Mass and also blessed each of the decorated vessels as they passed his boat for the past 25 years.

Father Evans told The Catholic Week, Mobile's archdiocesan newspaper, that after insurance adjustors assessed the damage in about a week he would have a better idea of what can be done to fix the church and other buildings.

Many of the old-timers in the parish were able to rattle off without hesitation the names and years of hurricanes they lived through and how high the water went each time. Katrina's water surge surpassed all of them, causing the worst damage in the state to this town and adjacent Dauphin Island.

Many residents, like self-employed fisherman Arlen Lyons, whose home had been under 7 feet of water and who no longer has work, planned to stay in the area, although he told CNS after the Mass that he "wouldn't mind being on higher ground."

Sixty-five-year-old Cecilia Nelson, who said she has "lived on the same piece of property all her life," got out her rosary on the night of the hurricane and said she "wore it out."

Her friend, Carolyn Thomas, said everything in her home is water-damaged.

"We've been married 50 years, and we lost everything," she said.

What upsets her most is not that she just had her kitchen redone, but that so many of her photographs are damaged.

Trying hard not to cry, but finally unable to stop herself, she said that through it all her faith had been restored. She said she always liked nice furniture and nice things and was proud of what she owned. But after the storm's destruction she had a different perspective.

"I told God if I recuperated, I won't be like that anymore," she said.

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Contributing to this story was Pam Wheeler.

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

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