On August 29, 2005, New Orleans experienced one of the worse natural disasters in U.S. history. While the city escaped a direct hit from Hurricane Katrina, the rising waters breached the levees that surround the city, leaving 80 percent of New Orleans under water. Five years later, New Orleans is a city rebuilding.
There has been a strong Jesuit presence in New Orleans from the days of the city’s founding over 300 years ago. The Jesuits have been in New Orleans in times of crisis like typhoid and yellow fever outbreaks at the turn of the 19th century and when the city flooded previously in the 1920s. Jesuit works like Good Shepherd Nativity School, which provides educational opportunities to disadvantaged children in the city, and Café Reconcile, a youth training program that provides on the job training in its restaurant, continue to help the city look toward a vibrant future. Schools like Loyola University and Jesuit High School continue to provide top notch education opportunities, while the Harry Thompson Center, a day shelter for the city’s homeless, reach out to the city’s most vulnerable. Today, the Jesuits continue to serve the spiritual needs of people of New Orleans and will continue be there for the city as it rebuilds and recovers.
National Jesuit News highlights the outreach and the dedication of the New Orleans Jesuits in the video piece below and provides a comprehensive overview of the Jesuit works in New Orleans five years after Katrina in the article following the video below.
The Rebirth of New Orleans – 5 Years After Katrina
Gumbo is perhaps a perfect symbol for New Orleans: a mysterious bowl, originating out of necessity, of multifarious ingredients and spices, time-tested and blessed by the “Holy Trinity,” beyond the onions, peppers and celery. The city’s positioning in the Mississippi River delta made it a natural port for early inhabitants–royalty, Native Americans, slaves, missionaries, pirates and prisoners, as diverse in their beliefs, traditions and experiences as one might imagine. The Jesuits were among these early residents, spreading the Gospel as missionaries here beginning in the 18th century, and today’s Jesuit ministries in New Orleans remain just as critical as they were then.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly one quarter of men, women and children in the city of New Orleans currently live below the federal poverty level. In August of 2005, Hurricane Katrina laid bare for all the world to see the intense neglect of this vulnerable population. Five years later, the recent announcement of a $79 million budget shortfall for the city weighs heavily on the minds of residents of all socio-economic circumstances. It presents an enormous challenge to a city, particularly in light of the recent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico that continues to threaten livelihoods and cultures. But the Jesuits, having bounced back from the storm with the prayers and support of so many people, continue to serve the people of New Orleans as best as they can.
When 80 percent of the city was submerged under stagnant water for two weeks, the Jesuits knew the need for assistance would be greater than ever. Together with province staff, they began assessing the severity of the situation and creating plans of action. “The immediate focus was getting current ministries back on their feet,” recalls Jesuit Father Fred Kammer, then provincial of the New Orleans Province. Temporary province offices opened in Grand Coteau, Louisiana, (about 140 miles west of New Orleans, where the old province offices laid submerged in filthy water) and the province initiated Katrina Relief Services to assess needs, allocate funds and organize volunteers to aid with rebuilding efforts.
Rebuilding physical structures was only one part of the recovery effort. “We needed to bring people back to normal as quickly as possible,” says Jesuit Father Anthony McGinn, president of Jesuit High School in New Orleans. “Our urgency to reopen was to help parents return.” The school’s entire first floor would need gutting and complete renovations after four and a half feet of water destroyed the auditorium, cafeteria, gymnasium, spirit shop and classrooms. While the school worked to clean up debris and reorganize classes into unaffected classrooms, its brother school in Houston, Strake Jesuit Preparatory, and a temporary campus organized at St. Martin’s Episcopal in Metairie, Louisiana, just outside of New Orleans, welcomed approximately 1,000 of Jesuit High’s students. Another 300 students completed course work at other high schools outside of New Orleans. By January 2006, 89 percent of students were back on campus, and today, Jesuit High counts 1,349 students enrolled for the 2010-2011 year. Thanks to the generosity of its devoted alumni and benefactors, the school continues to offer students a Catholic, college preparatory experience at one of the lowest tuition costs in the Greater New Orleans area, where for 163 years, no academically qualified student has been denied admission due to financial hardship.
Tuition is no burden for the students of The Good Shepherd School either. Founded by the late Jesuit Father Harry Tompson and based on the Nativity/Miguel model, the school educates children from families living at or below the federal poverty level. Its physical structure suffered only minor damage, but its students bore the brunt of the storm. With more than half of Good Shepherd’s students having deceased or incarcerated parents, support for returning students was critical.
The Good Shepherd School reopened early in January 2006 with 38 students and a scaled back staff, but with its donor base in flux, and funding for the school at risk. Today, the school benefits in part from Louisiana’s Student Scholarships for Educational Excellence Program, which offers tuition vouchers to students living below the poverty level and in failing school districts. The school’s kindergarten through seventh grade enrollment for the 2010-2011 academic year meets pre-Katrina enrollment at 90 students. “More than half of last year’s students performed above grade level in both reading and math, and the school’s second graduating class of seventh graders have been accepted and enrolled in some of the region’s best high schools, including Jesuit High School,” reports Ronald Briggs, president and chairman of the school. However, funding continues to be a concern because the school operates year round to offer students stability and summer learning opportunities. In addition, the school operates a Graduate Support Program that assists alums with the high school and college admissions process, tutoring, mentoring and counseling.
Just down the street from The Good Shepherd School is Immaculate Conception Jesuit Church, where the smell of diesel fuel still occasionally wafts about after the flooding of the church’s basement boiler room; it does not seem to deter parishioners, however. “Our focus has been to animate our congregation,” says its pastor, Jesuit Father Stephen Sauer, who has organized First Tuesdays, a new speaker series, and the Young Professionals and Graduate Society. The revitalized Racial Harmony Committee welcomes over 100 parishioners and friends to its annual Thanksgiving meal, and due to church closures post-Katrina, the parish’s St. Vincent de Paul Society works in coordination with the Archdiocese of New Orleans to help serve people in need beyond parish boundaries. Also popular is its concert series, originally started to aid local musicians suffering from lack of work immediately after the storm. At-will donations from concert goers help to support the musicians and to perpetuate New Orleans’ musical heritage, and as Sauer puts it, “Music becomes a healing prayer.” He adds, “There is a great sense of solidarity among our parishioners for having gotten through together, and we have turned a corner. We are building a parish for the 21st century that empowers parishioners more than ever before.”
One ministry of Immaculate Conception that seeks to empower others is Café Reconcile, an outreach to the people of Central City New Orleans that began offering culinary training to young people from this at-risk corridor ten years ago. Café Reconcile is an anchor for this community, not only as a place to eat lunch and as an employer, but in helping to spur revitalization of Central City, a once thriving commercial district for minorities that has become one of the poorest and most violent areas of New Orleans. Reopening only five weeks after Katrina, it served meals to first responders and operated as a gathering place for residents in need of support.
In hopes to accommodate growing classes of culinary program applicants, expansion efforts are underway and include a banquet hall to complement catering services. “We are rebuilding from an innovative place,” says Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary Sister Mary Lou Specha, executive director of the café. “We are no longer recovering. We are creating.” She admits that job placement for culinary program graduates has been considerably difficult with the economic downturn, gulf oil spill and the resulting reduction in tourism. “But,” says Specha, “we remind students that we walk together, and that this is a place they can call home.”
For thousands living without homes, due both in part to pre-Katrina hardships and because of the storm’s devastation, there is the Harry Tompson Center, a day center for the poor and homeless that cares for roughly 250 men and women daily. Its collaboration with the larger St. Joseph Rebuild Center, created by the Jesuits, the Presentation Sisters, the Vincentian Fathers and Catholic Charities’ Hispanic Outreach Program, is a testament to strength in numbers. “In collaborating, we can really increase the efficiency and comprehensiveness of our efforts,” says Executive Director Don Thompson, recalling the challenges of working alone and out of a tiny space near Immaculate Conception pre-Katrina. Now located near St. Joseph Church, just off the I-10 overpass, it consists of service trailers equipped with climate-controlled food storage, showers, laundry facilities and a few offices, all contained within a “framework” of trellises—decks and roofs that allow for breezes in the hot summer months and shelter from the elements. Lush green shrubbery and plants add a peaceful element to this respite center, and the homeless of New Orleans are free to find rest and support here Monday through Friday from 8:00 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
Since the center’s reopening in September 2007 through this past June, volunteers have served 126,598 guests with meals, medical and mental health aid, showers and hygiene kits, laundry service, phone service and legal assistance.
Down the tree-lined streets of the Garden District sits Loyola University New Orleans, ranked as one of the top ten universities in the South for the past twenty years by U.S. News and World Report. Having graduated its “Katrina class” last year, the school boasts a record number of applications over the past two years. Many of its current students first visited New Orleans as volunteers and from that experience decided to apply to the school. This year’s newest students will join other students, faculty and staff in “Into the Streets,” a day of service to the community meant to encourage students to follow in the Jesuit model of service and to bond students to their new community and school.
Serving a community well beyond the bounds of campus is its president, Jesuit Father Kevin Wildes. Wildes was appointed chair of the New Orleans Ethics Review Board, the board empowered to appoint the city’s inspector general who is tasked with investigating and preventing corruption, fraud and other illegal activities involving city government. An independent police monitor has also been appointed to aid the inspector general. These improvements, coupled with the aid of the federal government to local law enforcement, seek to transform a city with a history of well-documented violence and corruption. “We must transform the culture of death on the streets of New Orleans to a celebration of life and freedom, joy and possibility,” declared Mayor Mitch Landrieu, a Jesuit High School alumnus, at his inauguration.
Barriers to education and housing, poverty and crime remain ongoing concerns, and local Jesuit ministries continue to provide support to and facilitate change in New Orleans. The ministries in the city do not stand alone, but rather “they are part of an Ignatian family,” says Mary Baudouin, provincial assistant for social ministries, recalling the past five years of hard work and companionship shared among the ministries. “Because we banded together post-Katrina, every one of our ministries survived and possibly served better as a result.” Jesuit Father Mark Lewis, provincial for the New Orleans province, wholeheartedly supports the coordination of ministry efforts. “We have to become more interactive with one another,” he says. “We have to look at what has worked and reapply it based on the endemic needs of the city.”
This strength in numbers is a common theme among the people serving and being served by the city’s Jesuit ministries, and overwhelming gratitude is another common thread. The disaster has changed how people view their communities and how they can help one another heal. The recovery from total devastation is perhaps one of the best examples of self-help by a community ever attempted in our nation, due largely in part to neighbors’ generosity and support of one another, the optimism of a new mayor and the celebration of the Saints’ Super Bowl victory. If through people’s rebuilding, volunteering, donations and solidarity they continue to offer their thanks, they have heeded the call of St. Ignatius to “give and not count the cost, to fight and not to heed the wounds, to toil and not seek for rest, and to labor and not ask for reward” except that knowing they are doing God’s will.