Hurricane devastation challenges religious orders, Catholic colleges

By Jerry Filteau

WASHINGTON (CNS) --The Gulf Coast devastation left by Hurricane Katrina in late August posed major challenges to some Catholic religious orders with headquarters or educational institutions in the hurricane's path.

With the entire city of New Orleans being evacuated and shut down for months, the fall semester appeared to be entirely lost for the three Catholic colleges and universities there.

The Jesuits' Loyola University of New Orleans has about 6,000 students.

Xavier University of Louisiana, run by the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament and long a leading educator of African-Americans, has more than 4,000.

Our Lady of Holy Cross College, run by the Marianites of Holy Cross, has more than 1,400.

Other Jesuit colleges and universities across the nation were scrambling to accommodate any Loyola students who would want to transfer to their institutions for the semester.

A spokeswoman for the Blessed Sacrament Sisters told Catholic News Service Sept. 1 that she knew of no contingency plans by Xavier that could have anticipated an entire semester's shutdown. "I'm sure there aren't any," said Sister Juliana Haynes, the order's public affairs coordinator. "Nobody expected this disaster. We're still trying to grasp the horror of it."

Holy Cross Sister Judith Coreil, public relations director of Our Lady of Prompt Succor Home, an assisted living facility in Opelousas, La., told CNS by phone Sept. 1 that it was too early to say what options students of Our Lady of Holy Cross might have. She said about 100 members of the Marianites of Holy Cross, including 26 in an assisted living facility, had been forced to evacuate New Orleans, but all were safe.

She said the University of Louisiana in Lafayette has offered to take in students from New Orleans schools and the order might try to arrange temporary student transfers to institutions run by other branches of the order, such as St. Mary's College or Notre Dame University in Indiana.

In Bay St. Louis, Miss., the Divine Word Missionaries lost their provincial headquarters and retreat house but all community members were reported safe.

The entire community at Jesuit provincial headquarters in New Orleans moved 100 miles west to the Jesuit Spirituality Center in Grand Coteau, La.

Ordinary phone and e-mail communications with the hardest-hit region of the Gulf Coast, from west of New Orleans to Gulfport and Biloxi, Miss., were still almost nonexistent several days after the storm, but information gradually trickled out as residents reached inland towns and cities where communications were unaffected or had been restored.

The Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities quickly made use of its Web site, www.ajcunet.edu, to post available information about Loyola and set up an alternate Web site for the university's communications. It included a Web log, or blog, where the geographically scattered faculty and staff could exchange phone numbers and other information.

Jesuit Father Charles L. Currie, association president, issued a statement late Aug. 31 saying all 27 other Jesuit schools in the country have "agreed to admit Loyola students as visiting students for the fall semester, with the expectation that they would return to Loyola in the spring semester with credits earned transferable back to Loyola."

Xavier University of Cincinnati, run by Jesuits, was not connected with Xavier University of Louisiana apart from sharing the same name. But that connection was enough to draw thousands of e-mails and Web-site hits from people seeking information about the New Orleans school.

So the Cincinnati school posted information on its Web site about the New Orleans school and set up Web links where more information could be found, including a link to an emergency Web site created by Xavier of Louisiana to keep students and faculty abreast of what was happening.

The Cincinnati institution also started an on-campus hurricane-relief collection and announced plans to accept displaced students from New Orleans as visiting students for the fall semester.

Late Sept. 1 the Xavier of Louisiana emergency Web site reported that all students still on campus had been moved to a nearby staging area, under protection of campus and city police, to be taken that evening by bus to Southern University in Baton Rouge and Grambling State University in Grambling.

Jesuit-run Spring Hill College in Mobile, Ala., which suffered only minor hurricane damage, offered to enroll up to 150 students displaced from New Orleans schools as visiting students for the fall semester. It waived application fees and said that since transcripts may not be obtainable it will accept other evidence of eligibility for admission.

In a letter to Seattle University faculty and staff, Jesuit Father Stephen V. Sundborg, that university's president, said the school will take in displaced students as visiting students for the fall semester.

From their mission center in Techny, Ill., the Divine Word Missionaries posted news that the building housing the order's southern provincial headquarters in Bay St. Louis was destroyed. "The new retreat center is in shambles," the posting said. "The main residence sustained heavy damage."

The first floor of the residence was flooded and the building "has no electricity, potable water or sewage. Meals are prepared outside on charcoal grills," the notice said. "Recovery and rebuilding will not be measured in weeks, but in months and years," it said.

It said several order members in need of medical assistance had been evacuated. In the first hours after the storm the community flagged down a rescue helicopter to take Father George Artis out to Mobile because he needed dialysis.

Xavier University was founded by St. Katharine Drexel, foundress of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, whose motherhouse is in Bensalem, Pa. Reached there by telephone, Sister Haynes said that she learned Sept. 1 that the sisters at the university were still there along with about 400 students, but that they were safe and had enough food and water.

She said Norman C. Francis, president of the university since 1968 -- who refused to leave before the hurricane -- had finally evacuated and gone to Lake Charles, La., and from there was working on arrangements for a bus caravan to bring the students out.

She also said she just learned that morning that the members of the order who staffed Xavier Prep School in New Orleans had been evacuated to Rayne, La.

Copyright (c) 2005 Catholic News Service

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