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New Orleans Churches Rebuild, Though Pace Is Painfully Slow

c. 2007 Religion News Service NEW ORLEANS _ Nearly two years after Hurricane Katrina, members of 132-year-old Rayne United Methodist Church have finally moved back into their storm-damaged sanctuary, even as masons continue substantial repairs to the church’s toppled brick steeple. Meanwhile, in Algiers, contractors are just starting what promises to be at least nine […]

c. 2007 Religion News Service

NEW ORLEANS _ Nearly two years after Hurricane Katrina, members of 132-year-old Rayne United Methodist Church have finally moved back into their storm-damaged sanctuary, even as masons continue substantial repairs to the church’s toppled brick steeple.

Meanwhile, in Algiers, contractors are just starting what promises to be at least nine months of work and more than $2 million in repairs and expansion to Life Center Cathedral, where 1,000 people still gather in a tent.

So it goes across the New Orleans area, where the recovery of about 1,500 damaged churches and other houses of worship has slowed to the same hard slog that mirrors the recovery in general, according to a church demographer.

Still, the members of Rayne Memorial and Life Center Cathedral are in better shape than many. Even if their buildings were damaged, those congregations have remained intact _ if diminished _ as nourishing faith communities.

By contrast, the most recent numbers compiled by Bill Day of the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary indicate that by the end of April, about 30 percent of congregations in Orleans, Jefferson, St. Tammany, St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes still appeared to be missing from the post-storm landscape.

In the hardest-hit parishes of Orleans, Plaquemines and St. Bernard, 43 percent of pre-Katrina congregations have not returned, according to Day’s research.

That represents slow improvement in the eight months since Day’s previous benchmark, the one-year anniversary of Katrina. At that time Day estimated that only 47 percent of congregations in those hard-hit parishes were meeting; now it’s 57 percent.

Moreover, it appears across the board that surviving congregations have lost significant fractions of their members. Day said it was not uncommon to see surviving congregations functioning at two-thirds of their former strength.

Although local churches have received considerable rebuilding aid from other churches across the country, Day said their continuing struggle no doubt reflects a hardship that construction dollars can’t erase: the relative depopulation of many areas, especially St. Bernard and lower Plaquemines parishes.

Urban planners and civic leaders generally think the recovery of churches, synagogues and mosques both reflects and ignites a neighborhood’s recovery. A neighborhood or region must support some critical mass of residents who can come together to revitalize a dormant congregation or renovate a damaged building. Places of worship, in turn, can become centers for dispensing tangible services such as day care, and vital intangibles such as rebuilding information and aid.

Day’s research teams of seminary students counted only 28 of 56 prestorm churches open in St. Bernard Parish, and 29 of 49 pre-Katrina churches open in Plaquemines Parish.

In many cases, Katrina proved to be a brutal winnowing, decisively killing off small institutions that were prosperous a generation ago, before they lost their vitality because of population shifts or an inability to attract younger members.

The wreckage of the post-Katrina landscape has forced major denominations to cluster many surviving congregations together for mutual sustenance until their prospects for recovery become clearer.

To varying degrees, both Catholic and United Methodist officials have pursued that strategy with almost 80 damaged congregations in their two denominations.

Starting this fall, the Archdiocese of New Orleans will systematically revisit a 2006 plan that closed eight parishes or missions and clustered another 20 badly damaged parishes around 17 viable churches. Although empty, those damaged parishes are still technically open, and Day’s method counts them open, even though no Catholic worship or ministry occurs in those neighborhoods.

In time, the archdiocese will have to decide which parishes have sufficiently repopulated to warrant resuming operations, and which will have to merge or close permanently.

Similarly, about three dozen damaged Methodist churches in 2006 were grouped into seven clusters _ recently reduced to three _ in a plan in which church members and pastors try to chart their futures in a bottoms-up planning process, said the Rev. Martha Orphe, who is helping supervise the process.

In the case of the Methodist churches, five congregations have voted to close under the plan; two separate pairs of congregations are actively exploring merger, Orphe said.

In the coming months, church officials and church members might decide to close still more congregations, officials said. But in many cases, that means churches are free to reinvent and perhaps revitalize themselves in light of new circumstances, Orphe said.

“I have hope,” she said. “I do, I do.”

(Bruce Nolan writes for The Times-Picayune in New Orleans.)

KRE/PH END NOLAN825 words

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