Mississippi parishioners hit by hurricane help those in more need

By Carol Zimmermann
Catholic News Service

HATTIESBURG, Miss. (CNS) -- After Hurricane Katrina swept through the southern Mississippi town of Hattiesburg, its residents knew life was not going to be the same, but they also knew it could be a lot worse.

Stories broadcast on television and told by friends and relatives of the wreckage that occurred in distant towns made many of the parishioners of St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Hattiesburg grateful for what they had even with the inconvenience of felled trees and downed power lines.

Even 11-year-old Kelsea Lewis from St. Thomas got the idea. Kelsea, who had been in school for two weeks before the school closed because of the hurricane, spent most of her day volunteering at the parish Sept. 8, handing out items to families in need.

"We got really lucky," she told Catholic News Service, pointing out that the 24 trees that fell in her yard all landed parallel to the house.

She also had a keen sense, for a middle-school student, that she might not always be so lucky.

She took the view that her volunteering was really "helping in a circular kind of way," because if she were ever in need she hoped someone would do the same for her.

Lisa Lancaster, a pediatric nurse who sat on the floor by Kelsea repackaging baby wipes, likewise had a practical attitude about the devastation of the hurricane. Instead of being completely overwhelmed by its destruction, she decided to do something, taking vacation time to assemble packages of diapers, formula and baby food at her parish for the large percentage of single mothers who came to the church looking for supplies.

She knew the problems associated with the hurricane's destruction were huge, but she also felt confident they could be tackled by people working together.

"It's so enormous, it takes grass-roots efforts of all the churches to help," she said. She also noted that there was no clear blueprint to follow.

"We're just making this up as we go. With God's grace we go on," she said.

Their pastor, Father Tom Conley, known as "Father Tommy" to parishioners and the local community, shared a similar sentiment of moving on and relying on God to help others.

"We are much better off helping each other," he said, noting that he has seen "very few angry people" in the wake of the hurricane because so many of them were pitching in to help others who were in more need than they were.

He has seen his parish community come together to work in the newly formed parish distribution center and also in the way parishioners lingered after Sunday Mass Sept. 4, making sure everyone was OK after the storm and finding out about other friends or relatives.

Parishioners have also taken in friends and strangers from evacuated regions. One parishioner, a young father, was killed after a limb fell on his head when he was helping someone clear trees.

Rhonda Smith, a Hattiesburg resident who came to St. Thomas to pick up food and supplies, took in six displaced family members in her three-bedroom apartment.

Smith said it was "tight" in the apartment that she shares with her young son, but there was also no way she could not take in extended family. Everyone around her, she said, was taking in extra people. One neighbor even took in people she met at the gas station who just asked if they could have some food.

Joe Kinnan, a retired Air Force officer, jokingly referred to himself as one of the "lieutenants" at the parish-based distribution center because he supervised deliveries, got lunch for the volunteers and also went to visit some of the sick and homebound of the parish to help the pastor.

In all of this, he said, he was impressed with the way "the Lord works things out," because he saw over and over that just when they ran out of what they needed someone brought it to them.

"There just seems to be a greater plan, and to be part of that is good," he added.

Another dimension to the ministry was making sure volunteers did not run themselves ragged. Father Conway scheduled Communion services for workers and planned to resume daily Masses.

The first Sunday after the hurricane hit Aug. 29, the priest said, he intended to spend a lot of time preparing his homily, but instead was caught up with donations, deliveries and repairs.

He ended up "speaking from the heart" and simply told his congregation: "After every Good Friday comes Easter Sunday. Light, life, love, peace -- they all come back."

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

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