Mississippi parish hall gets new use as distribution center

By Carol Zimmermann
Catholic News Service

HATTIESBURG, Miss. (CNS) -- Father Tom Conway's cell phone never stops ringing.

The pastor of St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Hattiesburg has been getting calls for help and offering help since his cell phone started working again in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The hurricane winds swept through his town 70 miles north of the Gulf Coast taking down hundreds of trees, roofs, metal signs and power lines in its path.

Huge trees fell on the property of St. Thomas Aquinas and the church also sustained roof damage and flooding, but Father Conway had bigger concerns: helping hurricane victims.

His parish turned itself into a distribution center to provide food, cleaning supplies, water and lots of baby items -- formula, diapers, wipes and jars of baby food -- to those in need.

Donated items were arriving by the truckload from Catholic Social Services, the Salvation Army and Catholic churches across the country. Before distributing the goods, volunteers from the parish and surrounding parishes were unloading the trucks and organizing everything. A whole section of the parish hall was stacked high with diapers and long cafeteria tables were divided by categories: one entire table just for toilet paper, another for soups and one for peanut butter.

The pastor, wearing shorts and a T-shirt, was in almost constant motion -- directing volunteers, talking to people looking for help, carrying boxes of water. He noted with amusement that parishioners in the past have commented that the parish hall is not any good, and said he was certainly happy to see it put to good use.

"If we keep this up until Christmas, there is nothing more important that the church can be doing," he told Catholic News Service Sept. 8 in an interview just outside the parish office, which was more like a command post as strangers and parishioners filed in and out.

Chris Churchill from Charlotte, N.C., drove all night with a truckload of supplies for St. Thomas Aquinas. Churchill, a parishioner at St. Patrick Cathedral in Charlotte, said a group of people in the parish felt they had to "do something" to help the hurricane victims. Once they put out the word that they were collecting items, they were able to almost fill the truck.

"It's a great feeling to be part of the relief effort," he said, despite his lack of sleep. "You don't get the same sense of contributing when you're just writing a check."

Harry Hand, a member of St. Paul's Catholic Community in Damascus, Md., likewise knew he had to do something to help. He said he used Google on the Internet to search for Catholic churches in the South, getting in touch with them and asking pastors what they needed.

Father Conway, in his thick Irish brogue, told Hand he was welcome to come down and clear trees in the community with chain saws that had been donated to the parish.

Hand took some vacation time, collected money and donations that he loaded into a car trunk and drove to Mississippi with seven others, ready to help. The group cleared trees on the church property and also went to remote areas where people have not yet been helped. "You're an answer to prayer," one elderly woman told them.

A big part of the current ministry at St. Thomas Aquinas Parish was not only providing help on site but also going around to remote areas to clear trees or deliver food and supplies. Many of the rural communities were still without power or running water and were not been getting any kind of help from government or relief agencies. So each day, parishioners loaded up a donated RV and truck full of basic supplies and, often with Father Conway at the wheel, they made their rounds.

Rafael Sanchez, a professor of foreign language at the University of Southern Mississippi, was stopping at the church daily to load his car with supplies to take to Hispanic workers from local chicken factories.

The workers, who lost one week's pay since they did not work immediately after the hurricane, were grateful for anything they could get, Sanchez said, noting that they were just looking for "what they need to survive," such as water, diapers, food and soap.

"I know it's just a drop of water in a bucket," said Sanchez, a member of Sacred Heart Parish in Hattiesburg. "But it's a drop," he added, convinced that every bit helped.

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

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