Illinois, Colorado Catholics offer helping hand to Mississippi parish

By Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Catholics in Illinois and Colorado are among the volunteers helping a small, predominantly African-American parish in Mississippi to recover from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.

"My church and my school were completely destroyed. My rectory and the convent were flooded with 4 feet of water. It's terrible here," said Josephite Father William L. Norvel, pastor of St. Peter the Apostle Parish in Pascagoula, Miss., in a Sept. 16 interview with the Denver Catholic Register, archdiocesan newspaper.

But help and hope have come from Cure d'Ars Parish, a 400-family, predominantly African-American faith community in Denver, and from the 5,500-family St. Isidore Parish in Bloomingdale, Ill., in the Diocese of Joliet.

"The Catholic response has been amazing," Father Norvel said. "We're going to make it with some help from our friends."

Cure d'Ars packed a truck with water, clothing, school desks, sewing machines, fabric, blankets and a host of other supplies for Father Norvel, his parishioners and others struggling to survive in Pascagoula.

Though Catholics throughout the country are working to provide hurricane relief, few organizations have been better prepared to help than Cure d'Ars and its global outreach ministry.

"Many people here have nothing. I mean nothing," said Ruth McGee, one of the few parishioners at St. Peter the Apostle who still has a home. "But it seems like people out there care, even though we're just lowly little old Mississippi."

Because McGee has a home and phone, she has been talking with Cure d'Ars parishioner Donna Auguste, co-director of the church's global outreach ministry.

"We do outreach in many parts of the world, in many situations, and now our outreach is needed here in the U.S.," Auguste said.

The ministry typically builds houses and establishes communication infrastructure and solar refrigeration in Africa. The organization also builds houses in Mexico, and worked in the Mississippi Delta to upgrade schools long before Katrina ruined them.

Dr. Al McNair, a physician, and his wife, Rhonda, a registered nurse, provide Cure d'Ars with regular Gulf Coast situation reports. The McNairs live in storm-ravaged Ocean Springs, Miss., near Pascagoula.

"They tell us very specifically what people need, and we go to work getting it and shipping it," said Kathy Holmes, the ministry's other co-director. "There has been a tremendous need for school books. They have students and teachers but not one book. They want every book we can send."

For Father Norvel, one of the more uplifting moments in the aftermath of the hurricane came when he greeted volunteers from the North whom he likened to angels of mercy.

In the days after Katrina struck, St. Isidore Parish sent a four-member team to Mississippi to assess the damage and find out how it could help.

Josephine Lunsford, director of outreach ministries at the Illinois parish, said St. Isidore's made a long-term commitment to the hurricane recovery effort at St. Peter the Apostle. Among its goals are to rebuild parish structures; establish family partnerships between the two parishes; coordinate the delivery of household items to the Mississippi community; help with the needs of the 100 students at the parish school; secure a car for Father Norvel; and network with neighboring parishes in the Joliet Diocese to recruit more assistance.

Father Norvel told the Catholic Explorer, Joliet diocesan newspaper, that the wounds of Hurricane Katrina go far beyond the destruction of buildings at the 97-year-old parish.

"We had worked so hard recently to begin evangelization and leadership," he said. Parishioners spent $38,000 to refurbish the aging parish grounds, while simultaneously laying the groundwork to spread the Gospel message.

In fact, 22 St. Peter the Apostle parishioners attended an all-day leadership workshop Aug. 27, two days before Katrina ripped through the Gulf Coast.

Michael Hatt, a member of St. Isidore's parish council and the project initiator, said he contacted Bishop Thomas J. Rodi of Biloxi, Miss., in the days after the hurricane struck to ask how the Illinois Catholics could help. The bishop recommended assistance to St. Peter the Apostle, one of the diocese's poorest parishes.

"St. Peter is a parish with a long history and wonderful parishioners," Bishop Rodi said in an e-mail to the Catholic Explorer. "The parish is located in an area where the people do not have many material resources. ... When the good people of St. Isidore said that they wished not only to help now but on an ongoing basis, I knew that St. Peter could use the ongoing help."

For Hatt, the motivation is simple: "You can't save the world, but you can save part of it."

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Contributing to this story were Wayne Laugesen in Denver, Kathrynne Skonicki in Joliet and Nancy O'Brien in Washington.

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

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