Catholic mobilize hurricane relief

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Catholic parishes and organizations across the country and particularly in Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas, are responding to emergency and long-term needs for Hurricane Katrina refugees by providing shelters, food, medicine and schooling.

Virtually all dioceses nationwide planned parish collections the first weekends of September and immediate assistance is coming from Catholic Charities agencies, St. Vincent de Paul societies, Catholic schools, Catholic hospitals, parishes, retreat centers and families.

The Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston has responded to a request from the American Red Cross to open one of its 21 available shelters to help with the flow of refugees from Hurricane Katrina.

The archdiocese is prepared to open as many of its shelters as needed, according to Annette Gonzales Taylor, director of communications for the archdiocese. "We are just waiting for the American Red Cross to give us the green light," Taylor told The Texas Catholic Herald, archdiocesan newspaper of Galveston-Houston.

On Aug. 31, St. Peter Claver was at capacity, as more than 230 refugees had already found their way to the Houston parish.

Josephite Father Rawlin Enette, pastor at St. Peter Claver, received word from the American Red Cross Aug. 30 asking him to open his doors to the wave of refugees.

"We mobilized very quickly. They called and said they wanted to come in and I said, 'Bring the folks!'" said Father Enette. As refugees arrived, American Red Cross nurses assisted those with medical needs, and everyone received food and clothing.

The priest said he has never seen an outpouring of charity such as the one he's witnessed since the refugees arrived.

"Every time you look up, they're bringing in more stuff, like food and clothing," he said. "People of all walks of life have brought in countless number of things."

Among the refugees at St. Peter Claver was Maxine Rixner, a parishioner at St. Monica Parish in New Orleans. Rixner, her daughter and granddaughter fled New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina made landfall. While she does not have any confirmation, Rixner is assuming the worst regarding her home.

"From the area my home was in, I'm pretty certain it's gone," Rixner said.

After spending a night in a hotel, Rixner and those she was traveling with found their way to St. Peter Claver. "When we got to the hotel they had a list of shelters that were open," she said. "We picked this one because it was St. Peter Claver, and we have a Peter Claver back home."

The elderly refugee said she has been amazed at the level of hospitality she has received in Texas. "It's something I didn't expect. I had a different perspective of Texas before we came here. But they have just been amazing. I can't believe it." "I'm so grateful. I was telling my daughter you see the Holy Spirit working in everyone. If we could just keep this togetherness going after this disaster, what a wonderful world it would be," Rixner added.

The Diocese of Alexandria, La., 190 miles north of New Orleans, had several of its facilities designated as evacuation sites. The diocesan high school was housing people evacuated from Our Lady of Wisdom House, a retirement facility in New Orleans, which initially evacuated 103 residents to a stadium in Alexandria.

The Alexandria diocesan retreat center was housing a group of retired Sisters of the Holy Family and Red Cross relief workers. St. Mary's Residential Treatment Center for the Developmentally Disabled provided shelter to 26 patients with feeding tubes and many developmentally disabled adults.

The Diocese of Shreveport, La., where a number or refugees have been resettled, announced it would accept any children affected by Hurricane Katrina in Shreveport diocesan schools at no cost. The schools will keep a transcript of grades to send back to the schools in southern Louisiana when they reopen.

In Beaumont, Texas, the Catholic schools are also opening their doors to the children displaced by the hurricane and students from Msgr. Kelly High School in Beaumont are volunteering their time at the shelters. Local churches have been feeding the people in shelters and in hotels, cooking meals and providing monetary and medical assistance. The St. Vincent de Paul Society in nearby Winnie, with a population of about 5,000, has coordinated community efforts to house and feed several hundred refugees at the local community center.

Dozens of parishes in Arkansas are also assisting parishioners who are taking in family members and other evacuees who relocated to the state. Catholic Charities of Arkansas is planning for long-term assistance to families. Several Catholic schools have already enrolled students at no charge. The diocese and schools are going to ensure families will not have to pay for their child's textbooks, uniforms and lunches.

Tricia Nicholson, a parishioners at St. Mark Church in Monticello, Ark., may have hurricane refugee houseguests for quite some time. Her sister, Carolyn Kieffer, arrived Aug. 28 with six members of her family, including two elderly women, and a neighbor.

Kieffer, who is from New Orleans, said she continues to watch the news about when she could return home, but she is not optimistic that it will be anytime soon.

"This reminds me of 9/11," she said. "Not knowing, watching television and searching for something familiar, just waiting for news. We're just in a state of shock."

Holy Family Retreat Center in Beaumont has become a haven for 35 people, three dogs and a cat from New Orleans. The refugees range in age from 21 months to the 80s; they do not know what they will find, if anything, when they are finally able to return to their homes.

Adlai Depano, staying at the center with his wife and three children, said the uncertainty of what life will be like when he returns to New Orleans is unsettling, but just "being able to stay at the retreat center, with structure to the day, daily Mass and evening prayer helps," he told the East Texas Catholic, Beaumont diocesan newspaper.

"We are not in control," Depano said. "It is humbling, disconcerting."

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Contributing to this story were Erik Noriega in Houston, Linda Webster in Monticello and Karen Gilman in Beaumont.


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