Worship, prayers provide comfort, hope to Katrina evacuees in Houston

By Jonah Dycus
Catholic News Service

HOUSTON (CNS) -- Stranded for days at her home in New Orleans, Shirley Levy could have lost hope. In knee-deep water for almost a week, she had run out of food and her situation had grown more desperate as the floodwaters resulting from Hurricane Katrina had quickly risen.

"I prayed the whole time, every minute of it, until I was rescued by boat and helicopter," she said, with tears pooling in her eyes. "I was doing my rosary on my fingers."

Tens of thousands of evacuees from New Orleans have been received in Houston following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, whose death toll could reach the 10,000 mark. And Levy, finding shelter at the George R. Brown Convention Center, was among those grateful to be on safe ground.

On the morning of Sept. 4, Archbishop Joseph A. Fiorenza of Galveston-Houston joined a group of local church leaders for an ecumenical prayer service for evacuees housed at Reliant Park, a complex that includes Reliant Stadium, Reliant Center, Reliant Astrodome and Reliant Arena.

As young children played football and raced toy cars outside the area containing bedding in the exhibit hall of Reliant Center, the archbishop reminded the weary faces of the day of the week.

"Today is Sunday. It is church day," he said. "You know that on Sunday we have to lift up our hearts and our voices to praise and worship God, who we know loves us so very much. So we have come here this morning to say to you how much we love you, but more importantly, to say how much God loves you. And to remind you that we all belong to God."

As people collected around the podium area, the archbishop's voice continued to echo through the rafters.

"What I really wanted to say to you is how important you are to God," he said. "You are the apple of his eye, as every person is. And because each of you is so very important to God, you are so very important to us. Keep up your faith, because our faith is what gives us hope. And when we have hope, then we know that God is not going to abandon us; God will remain with us. And in God's hands, we will be safe and secure."

Following the prayer service at Reliant Park, Archbishop Fiorenza, Auxiliary Bishop Joe S. Vasquez of Galveston-Houston and Msgr. Frank H. Rossi celebrated a noon Mass for evacuees sheltered at the George R. Brown Convention Center.

Also concelebrating the service were priests from New Orleans, including Oblate Father Michael Amesse, pastor at St. Jude Shrine and Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish in downtown New Orleans.

"We have been through such a hard week, such a confusing week, it just turned us upside down," he said in an interview with The Texas Catholic Herald, Galveston-Houston archdiocesan newspaper, before Mass. "There was a lot of frustration in New Orleans, people not knowing what was going on. But the response (in Houston) has been wonderful. They have helped many of the people feel like human beings again."

While touring Reliant Park, Father Amesse encountered at least seven of his parishioners staying at the local shelters. At one point, he knelt and blessed a young girl who had approached him just outside the Astrodome entrance.

"That is where people meet Christ is in the sacraments," he said. "That is the most important thing. And in the sacrament of priesthood, we represent Christ so people can stay in touch with that and they won't feel completely abandoned."

Speaking to the media just prior to Mass, Archbishop Fiorenza noted the widespread confusion about how to categorize those who have been taken in by the various shelters and homes.

"Some in the media don't know how to refer to them: Are they exiles, evacuees, refugees, survivors?" he said. "I don't care what you say, the main thing is that they are our brothers and sisters, they are part of God's family. That is what is really important."

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

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