Diocese of Lake Charles
The formation of young men in the seminary doesn’t include a class on how to help church parishes recover from a catastrophic storm, so Father Joseph Caraway is learning as he goes. With both a pandemic and a Category 4 hurricane impacting Southwest Louisiana in the same year, he is gaining lots of experience.
Ordained on June 27, 2020, for the Diocese of Lake Charles, Father Joseph has helped coordinate a list of homebound and widowed parishioners in need as part of the Notre Dame Seminary Catholic Relief. This effort, organized to assist in the aftermath of Hurricane Laura, recently wrapped up the first of two mission trips involving approximately 35 seminarians from Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans.
The storm was the most powerful on record to strike the area in more than 150 years wreaking havoc on churches, rectories, schools and displacing a third of the priests in active ministry.
“We are working in the parishes of St. Henry, Sacred Heart of Jesus in Lake Charles, Immaculate Heart of Mary, and St. Margaret of Scotland,” said Father Joseph, parochial vicar at St. Henry Catholic Church. “We are trying to find the elderly in these parishes who need someone to give them a hand, especially those who can’t help themselves.”
Yard work, food distribution, and assisting with supplies at Catholic Charities of Southwest Louisiana kept the seminarians busy during their initial trip September 8-11. But Father Joseph said those tasks were just part of their focus.
“We especially wanted them to do some pastoral ministry, visit with the parishioners, and bring them hope,” he said. “That’s what a lot of people need right now. Yes, they need their yards cleaned and help with other things they are going through, but they also need someone to talk to them, give them Christ at this time.
“There is a heavy cross that everyone is carrying right now,” Father Joseph continued. “This is a time to express the Catholic faith to the people to give them hope in this time of crisis.”
When arriving at each house, the seminarians first pray with the individuals. They are learning how to be pastoral and how to bring Christ to those in need during this difficult time.
“Every day, they are split into groups and go with a priest from each church parish and shadow them,” said Father Joseph, “learning how to be a priest during a time of crisis and what that looks like.”
Among the group of seminarians assisting is Garrett Broussard from the Diocese of Lake Charles. The first-year theology student, whose home parish is Our Lady of Good Counsel Catholic Church, said the mission has been a wonderful experience made even more personal for him since he is familiar with the diocese.
“When someone is hurting, we just need to let them know that we care and that we are here to support them in their time of need,” said Broussard. “Just as our Lord is present in the Tabernacle, the ministry of presence to others can be powerful.”
Witnessing hurricane devastation for the first time in his life was Allen-Michael Muench, a seminarian for the Diocese of Dallas and parishioner of St. Ann Catholic Church in Coppell, Texas. Also in his first year of theology, Muench said he is grateful to be able to take time away from his studies to assist, noting that focusing on this dimension of priestly formation has been unique.
“I’ve done some mission work in the past with an emphasis on evangelization, but this time is the perfect reminder that the ultimate call of the Christian is to be sent into the world to reach out to others,” Muench said. “I want to carry that with me throughout my whole life, so this mission brings it to the forefront.”
While seminary formation doesn’t specifically teach students about disaster recovery, it does teach future priests how to pray and how to focus on trusting in Christ.
“The seminary does a good job of forming priests when it comes to praying each day and trusting in God,” said Father Joseph. “Day by day, Christ has been guiding me, and it has been a blessing to see how the right things have happened and fallen into place.”
Broussard echoes that sentiment of trust saying the virtue of patience has stood out for him through the mission work being carried out.
Slowing down to receive what God wants to give, but also realizing that he doesn’t need all the answers in a hurry to help someone, Broussard affirms, “God will place whomever I need in my path to be able to help those in need.”
The response from those on the receiving end of the Spiritual and Corporal Works of Mercy has been nothing short of immense gratitude.
Muench recalls coming across a lady who shared her struggles with the seminarians and how she was feeling forgotten. She said she was overwhelmed by their presence and to have someone be with her and care for her immediate needs.
Another lady, filled with anxiety about how she was going to get all the furniture moved out of her house, started crying when the seminarians showed up. Father Joseph said it was then that she recognized that the Lord was providing for her. The seminarians told her, “Deus providebit,” which is Latin for “God will provide.”
People have been coming from all over the country to help provide for strangers. Broussard said the response to the devastation in Southwest Louisiana has shown the faith in God that people have by the way they are reaching out to others.
With habitable dwellings at a minimum in the area, the seminarians have been staying at the Community of Jesus Crucified in St. Martinville, making the nearly two-hour commute — morning and afternoon — to and from Lake Charles.
“They prayed as a community and celebrated Mass with Father Michael Champagne before making the trip before sunrise each day,” said Father Joseph. “They worked in the hottest part of the day in their black clerics with the heat index exceeding 100 degrees. We made sure everyone was well-hydrated.”
At the beginning of the mission, the Most Reverend Glen John Provost, Bishop of Lake Charles, celebrated Mass for the seminarians in the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.
On their last day, the seminarians were on the receiving end of Father Roland Vaughn’s wisdom of having experienced prior hurricanes in Cameron Parish. Now a retired priest in the Diocese of Lake Charles, Father Vaughn was involved in the rebuilding of Our Lady’s Assumption Catholic Church in Johnson Bayou and St. Peter the Apostle Catholic Church in Hackberry.
The seminarians also heard from Father Sam Orsot, parochial vicar of St. Margaret of Scotland parish, on his perspective of going through a hurricane for the first time as priest. Orsot was ordained in 2018.
Father Joseph said the pastors have been “phenomenal” in their own endeavors to mentor to the seminarians.
Father Orsot led one group of seminarians, of which Muench was a part, on a Eucharistic Procession throughout the streets of the St. Margaret community. Other priests involved in the mission include Father Matthew Cormier, pastor of St. Henry; Father Wayne LeBleu, pastor of Immaculate Heart of Mary; and Father Richard Uche Adiukwu, pastor of Sacred Heart of Jesus.
Father Joseph said the Religious Sisters of Mercy at Catholic Charities have also been a tremendous help, including Sister Miriam MacLean, director; Sister Marirose Rudek, Sister Mary Hanah Doak, Sister Mary Benedicta Maier, and Sister Mary Thoma Houseal.
The seminarians will return September 18-20 to continue their mission work; the Most Reverend Gregory M. Aymond, Archbishop of New Orleans, will visit on Saturday, September 19; and a much-anticipated cool front taking away the blazing heat and humidity will arrive Friday morning.