Archbishop Hughes: Never thought God would ‘ask me to take this on’

By Catholic News Service

BATON ROUGE, La. (CNS) -- Displaced himself, New Orleans Archbishop Alfred C. Hughes has been working tenaciously from Baton Rouge to locate his priests, archdiocesan employees and Catholic Charities workers and to organize church relief efforts throughout his hurricane-ravaged archdiocese.

"I never thought the Lord was going to ask me to take this on at this age," the 72-year-old leader of half a million New Orleans Catholics told a cluster of reporters after he celebrated Mass Sept. 4 at St. Joseph Cathedral in Baton Rouge.

He acknowledged that it might have been the first Sunday since 1725 that no parish Mass was celebrated in New Orleans. But he said he didn't know, since so many of his priests were still unaccounted-for.

"We asked the priests to secure property (before evacuating) and bring the Blessed Sacrament and parish records in plastic bags," he said.

Reflecting on the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent flooding of the Crescent City, he said, "The most important thing for us is not to doubt God's presence and saving and transforming grace."

"I'm convinced that God is going to purify us through this," he added.

He said he knew the location of about half the 220 priests of the archdiocese but was still trying to learn where others were. He has been asking them to stay where they are and trying to match them with the thousands of New Orleans parishioners who have taken refuge in other Louisiana cities, notably Baton Rouge, Alexandria and Lafayette, or even out of state in places like Atlanta, Houston and Dallas.

He said he would be developing a more comprehensive pastoral plan in the coming week as archdiocesan officials begin receiving the information they need in order to move forward.

He said his vicar general, Auxiliary Bishop Roger P. Morin, had just been rescued from the city.

Bishop Morin and seminarians at Notre Dame Seminary had stayed behind to make themselves available to help people, he said. He added that the seminary suffered roof damage, which the seminarians repaired before leaving, but the seminary had also been flooded with water that rose several feet high.

He said one priest, Father Thomas E. Kinney, who was battling cancer, did not handle the evacuation well. The priest was given the sacrament of the sick Aug. 31 and died at a nursing home in Baton Rouge late Sept. 3.

The archbishop said he did not know the whereabouts of two priests who had stayed in the Louisiana Superdome to minister to the thousands who were stranded there for several days before being evacuated to Houston. Nor did he have word on a priest who had gone to the city's airport to minister to the sick and elderly who were brought there to be airlifted to other places for medical treatment.

Archbishop Hughes, who had been visiting many New Orleans refugees at emergency shelters in and near Baton Rouge in the days following the hurricane, said that work is "really an extraordinary ministry but it is a huge challenge."

He said he has been giving people the sacrament of the sick and listening to their stories. "Some have experienced harrowing escapes," he said.

WAFB-TV in Baton Rouge showed a six-minute segment in which Archbishop Hughes held New Orleans jazz singer Charmaine Neville as she wept and told him about her efforts to save sick and elderly hurricane victims stranded on a school rooftop.

The archbishop told reporters after Mass that archdiocesan Catholic Charities had depleted its food supplies significantly to feed those sheltered in the Superdome.

He said the archdiocese will be working to bring food, water, shelter, communication capabilities and grief counseling to refugees. It will also work to connect separated families, he said.

One indicator of the dimensions of the disaster, he said, is that for the first time Catholic Relief Services, the church's overseas aid agency, is taking on a domestic crisis.

It's important now "that we commit ourselves to the long term," he added.

Father Than N. Vu, Baton Rouge diocesan clergy personnel director and the designated contact point for New Orleans archdiocesan priests displaced by the storm and flooding, told Catholic News Service Sept. 6 that he has been in contact with about 30 New Orleans priests now working in Baton Rouge, where the population has roughly doubled because of the influx of New Orleanians.

On Labor Day the archdiocese restored its Web site, It set up a "forum" link where archdiocesan plans and school and parish planning announcements were being posted. The forum invited archdiocesan, parish and school personnel and parishioners to post messages.

By noon the next day the forum was awash with dozens of message strings in which pastors, school administrators and thousands of parishioners restored contact. They began telling one another where they were, how they could be reached and who else they knew who was safe. Many of the messages also included pleas for information about missing friends and loved ones.

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Contributing to this story were Paul Haring in Baton Rouge and Jerry Filteau in Washington.

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

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