Military priest helps Mississippi pastor pay visit to damaged church

By Ed Foster Jr.
Catholic News Service

PASS CHRISTIAN, Miss. (CNS) -- One pastor's journey to his beloved parish in a Mississippi town battered by Hurricane Katrina began as a Catholic chaplain he never met typed in a few key words on the Internet site

As the only Catholic chaplain for military troops in the hurricane-ravaged areas of Mississippi, Precious Blood Father Bill Stang turned to the Internet to locate a local priest to cover Sunday Masses after the chaplain returned to Rensselaer, Ind.

The chaplain, a lieutenant colonel with the Indiana National Guard, queried Google for names of Catholic churches in Gulfport, Miss., in the Biloxi Diocese. There, he found a replacement and more.

From his desk at Camp Shelby, Father Stang retrieved the names of the top three churches yielded by his Internet search -- St. Therese, St. Ann and St. John. He dialed the number for St. Therese first, and it was a good choice. The other two churches had been destroyed.

Josephite Father Raymond "Doc" Carignan, pastor at St. Therese, answered the phone.

He told the chaplain that a fellow Josephite, Father Bartholomew Endslow, 84, would be willing to help. Father Endslow was staying with Father Carignan because his own parish, Our Mother of Mercy in nearby Pass Christian, had been decimated.

Father Endslow arrived at Father Carignan's door the night before Katrina hit with only the clothes on his back. After the storm, Father Endslow tried for nearly two weeks to obtain permission to visit his little parish in the heavily guarded and quarantined area beyond the railroad tracks.

Within two hours of his phone call, Father Stang and his driver were at the rectory door at St. Therese ready to escort the priests into an area of indescribable destruction in Pass Christian. As military personnel, the lieutenant colonel and his driver, Staff Sgt. Michael Martin, were able to take the priests there.

As they entered the coastal community, they saw pieces of homes strewn about from an estimated 30-foot-high wall of water that swept across southern Mississippi Aug. 29.

They spotted the small, white-washed, clapboard rectory -- the storm had moved it about 1,000 feet from its former location and it sat on the railroad tracks, leaning off center.

Then, pointing to the chapel adjacent to the main church building, Father Endslow said, "The Blessed Sacrament is still in that building. And there is another tabernacle in the church."

"And look, the statue of the Blessed Virgin is still standing," he added.

Father Stang and Martin worked their way through the rubble and debris of the chapel and returned five minutes later with a slightly tarnished and dripping tabernacle.

Inside the main church, pews, statues and the altar had been tumbled about by the agitation of the violent waters from the Gulf of Mexico that washed through the building. Damp mud covered the floor.

"The tabernacle was on the altar and my chalice is in the sacristy," the soft-spoken priest told the chaplain. Father Endslow's family gave him the chalice when he was ordained in 1949.

After the soldiers gained access to the sacristy, Father Endslow looked into the mud-covered area and provided directions. But nothing was in its former place.

After searching for a few minutes, Father Stang yelled out, "We found it, Father. We found your chalice."

As he handed the tarnished and mud-caked silver cup to the parish priest, Father Endslow held it in his hands gently and stared at it as he must have many times at Mass. He was relieved to have his special chalice.

In the 90-plus-degree heat, the chaplain and sergeant continued climbing over the interior rubble of the church until they located the second tabernacle and were able to free the top of the altar. They were also able to gain access to the rectory on the train tracks and locate parish sacramental records.

Sitting in the front passenger seat of the car, Father Endslow closed his eyes, and there was a look of contentment on his face for a moment. But as the car rolled past block after block of destruction and missing homes, he stared blankly out of the window as he had on the way in.

"If only I knew how my people are, then I would be so relieved," he said.

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

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