Bishop, parishioners discuss post-Katrina options for churches

By Shirley Henderson
Catholic News Service

PASS CHRISTIAN, Miss. (CNS) -- "There is much in me that wishes that we could just go back to Aug. 28," Bishop Thomas J. Rodi of Biloxi told St. Paul parishioners at an evening meeting Oct. 11 in Pass Christian.

St. Paul Parish's church, rectory and school were some of the many buildings ravaged by Hurricane Katrina Aug. 29.

The bishop said the purpose of the meeting was "to look at the options before us as we seek to rebuild St. Paul Parish."

It was the first of several listening sessions the bishop has scheduled for parishes devastated by Katrina.

"I am not here so much to give information, or to answer questions, but to listen to anything you may have to say that will help me in making a decision. ... I wish I did not have these decisions to make," he told the group gathered at Our Lady of Lourdes Church.

St. Paul parishioners still in the area have been attending Mass at Our Lady of Lourdes since the hurricane.

Emotions ran high during the hour-and-a-half meeting and the general consensus was obvious -- the people wish to rebuild the church and the school on the same location where the parish has been since 1847.

"Although the church has survived several hurricanes, it has been destroyed twice in the last 36 years," Bishop Rodi pointed out. "We have very good insurance coverage (for the diocese), but that coverage was based on the benchmark of (Hurricane) Camille. My feeling is that our insurance will not cover all the damage we have," he said.

Katrina rivaled the destruction caused by Camille, which hit the Gulf Coast in 1969 and at that time was the most powerful storm to hit the region.

When questioned further about monetary donations that have poured into the diocese, Bishop Rodi responded, "Those gifts are not for building, but for humanitarian needs. There isn't much of it I can use to rebuild rectories and churches.

"As bishop, I have to look at the most responsible thing to do about rebuilding," he said. "There are some tough decisions to be faced."

"The diocese has many of the same decisions we homeowners have to make," said St. Paul parishioner Jim Currie. He also suggested that if St. Paul is rebuilt, a "better model" needs to be considered.

Parishioner Gayle Parker said St. Paul should be rebuilt where it is. "If we build there, the people will come back," she said.

At least a dozen parishioners approached a microphone, placed in the center aisle of the church, to voice their opinion or to ask questions of the bishop.

Most concurred that St. Paul Parish is an "anchor" in Pass Christian. The parish sponsors the Pass Christian Carnival Ball and parade and a seafood festival each year. "Not many things happen (in Pass Christian) without St. Paul being involved," said Chris Schmidt.

"We haven't lost our parish," Kathy Griffon said, "we've just lost some buildings. Wherever the building is, I'll go to it. I liked where it was, but I can deal with it."

There were nine buildings on the St. Paul Parish property. "The report from the structural engineer has indicated that eight cannot be saved," Bishop Rodi said. "The only part of the parish building that might be saved is the principal metal framework," he added.

"Katrina has proven that a more damaging hurricane than Camille could hit us ... therefore, there is the option: whether to rebuild St. Paul where it is, or to combine St. Paul and Our Lady of Lourdes at the present Our Lady of Lourdes site," he said.

Parishioner Butch Tolliver said, "I respect nature and we don't know what the next hurricane will be. I feel we should consider moving the parish to another location."

"There is a connection to the water and to the land," Kim Necaise said. "We need to have the church and the school there," she said of the beachfront site. "Our parish is 'home' to a lot of people. It is who we are. The social events of the city revolve around St. Paul."

"I can't believe we are having this discussion," architect Danny Taylor said, "The building is intact. We could have Mass there tomorrow."

Parishioner Shirley Schmidt had the last word. "If we build it, they will come," she said before returning to her pew.

"This is a deeply felt issue," Bishop Rodi said, thanking the congregation for their comments, and suggestions. "Everyone conducted themselves with Christian charity here tonight. I applaud you and I thank you. ... I thank you for your love of the church and for your parish."

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

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