By: Dave Brencic
“Hope isn’t on the way, it’s already here,” said Fr. Doug Doussan, pastor of St. Gabriel the Archangel Parish in New Orleans.
Fr. Doug’s words were good news to the people of his parish still struggling three years after Hurricane Katrina. His words also gladdened the hearts of the 12 pilgrims from Chicago who had come with the group Hope’s on the Way to help in the rebuilding efforts.
The project for the week would consist of working on the parish hall and making repairs in the homes of parishioners. The entire neighborhood surrounding St. Gabriel’s had been flooded with 3 to 12 feet of water after the levees broke following Katrina. The parish plant itself took on 6 to 8 feet of water. Almost everything on the ground level of the parish buildings, including the church, was destroyed.
While contractors work on the church with a Thanksgiving completion date looming, volunteers near and far have spent hundreds of hours restoring the parish hall. While the church may be the soul of St. Gabriel, the parish hall is its heart.
The hall has been a place for countless gatherings -- from meetings to dinners to dances and has been sorely missed by St. Gabriel’s parish family.
This ninth trip to New Orleans sponsored by Hope’s on the Way would focus in and around St. Gabriel. The group consisted of three deacons and nine lay volunteers. Many of the previous trips have consisted of helping to restore the motherhouse of the Carmelite Sisters in the Lakeview neighborhood of New Orleans.
Like any project, this one had its ups and downs. The focus was supposed to have been installing ceiling tiles in the parish center’s five bays, which measured 14 feet wide by 40 feet long. Unfortunately, there were not enough tiles available to purchase and only 1½ bays were completed.
Instead, attention shifted to priming, spackling and painting the 40-foot beams in the ceiling and the various wall columns.
Those in the group with carpentry skills were given a variety of projects, which included moving a wall measuring 10 feet high and 25 feet long, framing and securing walls for a bathroom, framing doorways, removing temporary showers, expanding a tool room and framing walls for an outdoor storage shed.
Members of the group also took turns with the grueling task of stripping, scrapping and sanding three sets of metal doors.
Two of the group spent most of the week doing repairs on homeowners’ homes, which ranged from repairing a hole in a ceiling to repairing and remounting a door on an outside shed to installing tile, wallboard and a vent.
But with every trip, it just wasn’t the work, but meeting the people.
Kate Marshall, who served as cook on the trip, attended daily Mass at St. Gabriel’s and said more than once she had “fallen in the love with these people” after meeting them, praying with them and hearing their stories.
Each day a different grade from St. Benedict the Moor School came to Mass. On Thursday the Chicago group attended Mass, and it was particularly touching to listen to second-graders praying for the poor, the people who have no food or water and the homeless when many of their own families had probably been in those same situations during the past three years.
Sister Kathleen Pittman, pastoral associate at St. Gabriel, said it was hard for many people in New Orleans to get their heads around the fact that volunteers would be willing to travel thousands of miles to help them rebuild.
At the end of the work day on Thursday, Fr. Doug hosted the Chicago group in the rectory. Part of the visit included reflecting on our visit.
“What surprised you this past week and what will you take home with you?” he asked the group. Once again, it wasn’t about the work we had completed or our tired, aching out-of-shape bodies, but the people we had met, the stories we had heard and the rebuilding that still needs to be done.
Before leaving to have supper with members of the parish, Fr. Doug presented the group with a beautiful statue of Gabriel the Archangel as a token of the parish’s gratitude. There wasn’t a dry eye in the group as we each admired the gift and felt humbled by all that we had experienced that week.
St. Gabriel had indeed lived up to its namesake as a messenger of good news, especially for 12 hope-filled pilgrims from Chicago.