Priest witnesses devastation in drive north from Mississippi coast

By Mark Pattison
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Divine Word Father Brendan Murphy thought he was just going to celebrate weekend Masses in Lizana, Miss., and then head back to his order's monastery in nearby Bay St. Louis.

That was not to be.

Even though it's less than 24 miles from one town to the other, Hurricane Katrina made Father Murphy a virtual prisoner in the rectory of St. Ann Church in Lizana until after it blew through southern Mississippi Aug. 29. Once he was able to leave Aug. 31, a bridge between Lizana and Bay St. Louis was out, and Interstate 10 was closed in the area, prompting a trip northward to Jackson, where the Divine Word order staffs a parish.

"I tried to get back to Bay St. Louis but I couldn't get back," Father Murphy told Catholic News Service in a telephone interview from Jackson diocesan headquarters, where he had stopped to ask for directions to the Divine Word-staffed parish.

"The police were turning us away and the roads were impassable. Railway tracks were running along there and you couldn't get past the tracks. Looking down, I could see that every house was in a terrible state.

"The tops of the houses were gone," he added. "I don't know how to describe it. It just looked like a bunch of shacks in disarray. I was in shock when I saw it."

Parishioners at St. Ann had asked for a priest to substitute for their pastor, who was on vacation. Father Murphy became the designated substitute.

He said he didn't make any references to the coming hurricane in his homilies. "I think everybody presumed it was going toward New Orleans," Father Murphy said. "I think everybody realized it was going to have an effect on the area, but nobody knew how much."

At St. Ann, for instance, "every building got damaged. The door was torn off the front of the church. Every building had a roof either half-taken or shingles gone," the priest told CNS

"I had my car in the garage and part of the roof came down in the garage and landed in my car. I don't know how the water got in there, but it was blowing hard. I was in the garage at one stage and I could see the garage door buckling, so I got scared and I went back inside," he added. "I had to force (the door open) with some of the men (of the parish) to get my car out."

The Irish-born Father Murphy said the St. Ann rectory lost power at 7 a.m. Aug. 29, as the hurricane was at full force. Power was still out when he left Aug. 31, "and it probably won't be back for a long time. I didn't see any building from, say, 10 miles down to the Gulf (of Mexico) that hadn't been damaged," he said.

Complicating matters was the fact that he couldn't use his cell phone. "It (the power) had run out, and I couldn't charge it, that was the problem. I couldn't reach anybody, I couldn't find anybody," Father Murphy said. He talked with CNS even before he called relatives in Ireland and England to assure them he was OK.

Since he couldn't return to Bay St. Louis, Father Murphy made the trek north to Jackson on U.S. Highway 49.

"There were no problems along the way. Traffic was heavy, but there was no gasoline (for sale) along the way. I'm glad I had a half-tank in my car," he said.

"There were lots of emergency vehicles and Army vehicles heading that way (to Mississippi's Gulf Coast). There were lots of trees down all the way along. Some houses demolished, some houses without shingles, all that kind of stuff," he said.

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