Faith of local Catholics not shaken by storm, bishops, priest say

By Carol Zimmermann
Catholic News Service

BILOXI, Miss.(CNS) -- Father Dominic Phan Duc Dong, pastor of the Vietnamese Martyrs Church in Biloxi, knows full well about facing challenges and he is a strong believer that "challenges make our faith stronger."

The 72-year-old priest, who ran through a battlefield with mines blowing up around him in Vietnam and escaped his country in a refugee boat in 1975, rode through Hurricane Katrina on a boat tied to two other boats in a Biloxi canal with eight of his parishioners. Although the boat kept tossing through the night, it survived intact.

The next day, he went to the church, where he has been pastor for 20 years, and saw the huge extent of water and mud damage. Many families in his parish had left their homes to live at least temporarily with other families.

At Sunday Mass in the parish parking lot the first weekend after the Aug. 29 storm, the priest recounted his experiences in the Vietnam War and refugee boat as a means to encourage parishioners to understand that they would grow stronger from their current challenge.

By Sept. 9, the church parking lot was filled with bags of clothes and food donations, and someone was operating a power washer to clean the altar. Officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency came by to ask him what he needed and a group of Christian volunteers said they were ready to help in any way possible.

The priest told the FEMA official that he really only needed rice for his parishioners and he told Catholic News Service that he was confident the church would be rebuilt.

"I tell people that they should help each other and should pray to God for the future," he said in the extremely soggy church lobby.

Bishop Thomas J. Rodi of Biloxi told CNS Sept. 9 that he too was confident the church would be rebuilt and that Catholics needed to take an active role in rebuilding their churches and schools to be a sign of hope to others.

"The spirituality of the people is wonderful," he said, noting that even amid the devastation they have shown a strong resiliency.

"When people ask, 'Why did this happen?' I don't have an answer, but I know that God is with us and that we need to go closer to God and let God strengthen us," he said.

The bishop has seen firsthand the damage in his diocese and also knows some degree of the evacuees' experience since he opened his own home to two of his sisters and their families, two dogs and a cat who were displaced by the hurricane.

Archbishop Oscar H. Lipscomb of Mobile, Ala., also has seen that even with the storm's destruction "people responded well with great resilience and their faith was not shaken."

The archbishop, who spoke to CNS by telephone Sept. 10, said the response from the wider community to reach out to those in need has been "fantastic."

One story in particular that he heard about illustrates the kind of immediate response that has occurred in the hurricane's aftermath.

He said a campus minister at the student center of St. Michael Parish in Auburn told his students after Mass about the great need hurricane victims had for shoes. At the end of Mass, about 200 students came up and left their shoes at the altar, and went home barefoot.

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

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