(RNS) — Hurricane Ida was still raging in Metairie, Louisiana, when the Rev. Joe Palermo of St. Francis Xavier Church got a call that some neighbors were in trouble.
The storm had blown the roof off a condominium building right across the street from the church. Residents inside were stranded and needed to be evacuated.
With the help of several volunteers, about three dozen neighbors were shuttled over to the church for the night, glad for a roof over their heads, shelter from the storm and a good meal. The following day, some residents were able to connect with family members while others left the church for a local shelter.
“As one man told me, church pews are great for praying, not for sitting,” said Palermo.
In the 10 days since the hurricane hit, volunteers from St. Xavier Church — which suffered damage in the storm — have made meals for their neighbors, donated funds to help hard-hit churches in other communities and begun the work of getting ready to reopen the parish’s school.
Similar scenes have played out at almost every parish in the Archdiocese of New Orleans. Catholics across the city and the surrounding area have spent the last week helping their neighbors while also trying to repair the damage left in Ida’s wake.
Nearly 50 churches in the archdiocese suffered damage ranging from downed trees and broken windows to flooding and collapsed ceilings and walls, according to an update published by the Clarion Herald, the archdiocese newspaper. Several schools were damaged as well. Many churches remain without power.
Despite these challenges, parishioners are pitching in and helping out wherever they can.
“As far as recovery efforts, there is not a parish that I am aware of that has not been part of some kind of recovery or relief effort,” Sarah McDonald, director of communication for the Archdiocese of New Orleans, told Religion News Service in an email.
The New Orleans Archdiocese is home to about half a million Catholics in 111 parishes, according to statistics from the diocesan website.
In hard-hit LaPlace, Louisiana, St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church has turned into a kind of one-stop shop for disaster relief in the days after the hurricane. The church, which lost part of its roof to the storm, has been serving meals to the community, organizing work teams to help neighbors clean up their flood-damaged homes and handing out supplies to local residents.
Because of the damage to the church’s roof, Sunday Masses have moved to the gym at the parish school. The Rev. David Ducote, pastor of St. Joan of Arc, has also been holding weekday Masses in the yards and driveways of parishioners. Those outdoor Masses offer spiritual comfort and a sense of community.
“It’s a good pastoral visit and a way of just getting out and seeing the people,” Ducote said.
Using a spreadsheet on a computer at the church’s rectory — which has power thanks to a portable generator — Ducote and a deacon at the church have been matching volunteer groups from other parishes with elderly neighbors who need help.
Cleanup efforts have been going slowly because there is so much work to do. Many homes have flood damage and downed trees litter yards in the area.
“Everyone in this whole area has damage,” said Ducote, who spent some time this week helping volunteers tear out Sheetrock at a home that suffered flood damage.
Having outside groups come to help has been a real godsend, Ducote said. Those volunteers have aided in cleanup, handed out supplies and cooked jumbo pots full of spaghetti and jambalaya.
“It’s just ordinary citizens who say, ‘I want to help you, I know how to cook and I have a big pot,’” he said.
Despite the challenges — no power, intermittent access to water, spotty cellphone coverage — people in the neighborhood have been mostly optimistic in the days since the storm, said Ducote.
People are thankful it was not worse, he said. And they’ve been willing to set aside many of the controversies that have divided the country over the past years. No one is arguing over the election or politics or other divisive issues. Instead, folks are working together, he said.
“We have set aside all the petty things that everyone seems to be so worried about all the time,” he said. “Everyone just lends a hand any way they can.”