Diocese of Lake Charles
Two major hurricanes in 6 weeks. More than 50 priests in active ministry throughout 39 church parishes and 7 missions, spread across 5 civil parishes. Add to the mix an ongoing pandemic for most of 2020. No matter how the numbers are calculated, the result is the same: one diocese in full recovery mode.
The Most Reverend Glen John Provost, D.D., M.A., Bishop of Lake Charles, said that everything now should be seen through the “prism of recovery for the good of the Church and for the good of the people.”
"There is a lot of reprioritizing that must take place and calibrating what can wait and what cannot wait,” Bishop Provost said about the Diocese being hit by two back-to-back hurricanes. “Recovery should be front and center in our minds as we meet the needs of the people and the Church.”
While priests, religious, administrators, parish staffs, and school faculty were in the middle of picking up pieces from Hurricane Laura, along came Hurricane Delta dealing another blow to the already crippled diocese.
Delta made landfall late on October 9 as a Category 2 hurricane near the coastal town of Creole less than 15 miles east of where Laura roared ashore on August 27 as a Category 4 storm. To sum up the two unwelcome visitors: Laura was a wind event. Delta was a rain event. Neither make for a good combination.
If there is a silver lining to be found from being in the direct path of two hurricanes in a matter of weeks, the Very Rev. Ruben J. Buller, Vicar General, said the recovery process for the Diocese was already in motion when Delta hit.
“We are in the midst of recovering from two storms,” said Father Buller, who also serves as Chief of Recovery to rebuild the Diocese. “We have a process in place, and things are following that process. That’s the good news.”
The Hurricane Recovery Team was formed by Bishop Provost in the days after Hurricane Laura. It is made up of a Council of Deans chaired by the Rev. Monsignor Daniel A. Torres., V.G., who meets regularly with the Deans to make recommendations for any changes or adjustments to the future of parishes severely compromised or destroyed. The Deans are assisting pastors and parochial vicars in their efforts to provide for the pastoral needs of the faithful.
“The pastors have done a phenomenal job as far as getting back to their full Mass schedules after both storms,” said Buller. Many churches operated off generators after both storms until power could be restored.
Director of Temporal Goods is Ms. Stephanie Rodrigue, whose duties include meeting with the Diocesan Building Commission to review recovery efforts, report on progress, and seek advice and input of the professionals on the Commission. She also works closely with the Deacon Brian Kirk, Chief Financial Officer of the Diocese.
Recovery Secretary is Ms. Brittany Beale who has been tasked with documenting all activities involving temporal matters for the recovery efforts. She works directly subordinate to the Chief of Recovery and Director of Temporal Goods.
First and foremost, Father Buller said he is relying on those in charge to recognize damages at their church parishes and schools.
“Once the assessment of damages has been done, the pastors and principals contact the Hurricane Recovery Team, in particular myself or Stephanie,” said Buller. “They make their initial reports and, from there, a mitigation team is sent out. Once the mitigation team confirms there is not further damage or problems, the process of recovery and repairs can move forward.”
Father Buller said the mitigation teams being used are out of New Orleans and Lafayette and were located through public procurement to keep the process above board.
Echoing the sentiments of Bishop Provost regarding what is a priority, Father Buller acknowledged that daily operations in the Diocese as they were before Hurricane Laura will not continue as they once did.
“One of the blessings that we can see with the hurricanes is that it gives us on opportunity to see where we need to make improvements and where we need to tighten our belts,” said Buller. “Will things be the same as before the hurricane? Probably not. Our goal in the end would be that our Diocese would be better than it was.”
Of utmost importance to Bishop Provost is for the Diocese to be of service to the church parishes to help make the recovery as easy as possible.
“If our churches and their facilities in the parishes are unusable, then we are handicapped and cannot minister the people of God,” said the Bishop.
Pastors pleased with disaster response
The Rev. John Payne, JCL, pastor of St. John Vianney Catholic Church in Bell City and a judge on the Diocesan Tribunal, was quick to commend the Hurricane Recovery Team in its response after Delta.
“The mitigation team was already on site before I could even return from evacuating the day after the storm passed,” said Father Payne. “The Diocese was so quick and on top of things. After an 8 a.m. candlelight Mass on Sunday because of no power, a tractor-trailer drove up with big industrial generators. I thought it was a mistake since I had not had time to request any. I later learned the Diocese had ordered a generator to help dry out part of the church that had taken in water. I was really impressed.”
“I told Father Buller the fact that the Diocese had our back and whipped into action so quickly, I was in disbelief,” said Payne who evacuated with his Catahoula Hound, F.J. (Father Junior) for Hurricane Laura but had to leave him to fend for himself during Delta.
Father Payne said he is ready to cancel his subscription to the “Hurricane of the Month” Club, although he is grateful for miraculously being spared the worst of the two storms.
The Rev. Vijaya Prakash Peddoju, H.G.N., pastor of Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic Church in Oakdale and its mission church, St. Francis of Rome in Elizabeth, said downed trees and missing roof shingles were the main problem with Hurricane Laura. He wasn’t so lucky with Hurricane Delta.
“We had flooding in the church and the office, around six inches of water,” said Father Peddoju. “The Diocese responded quickly to our needs, as did some of our parishioners to assist with pumping the water out and removing the carpet. I’m from India and am not used to dealing with mold, wet sheetrock and insulation.”
During the challenges so many are facing, Father Peddoju has a message: “God created us not only for ourselves but for each other. As humans, we need to stand up and do our part, be there for one another.”
All that is left of Christ the King Catholic Church in Lake Charles is a shell of the building. Hurricane Laura destroyed the church, the office, and the church hall. The Rev. Rojo Koonathan, H.G.N., V.F., pastor and Dean of the South Deanery, had hoped he could at least save the pews, but then Delta finished off those, too.
“All of the ceilings were demolished with Laura. After Delta, we will have to give up all the pews because of more roof leakage and flooding,” Father Koonathan said. “The only thing that survived is a storage building which we are using for the church office. My office is now in the rectory three miles away from the church.”
Realizing there are limitations on response time, Father Koonathan is pleased with how recovery is progressing. Having recently been assigned pastor at Christ the King in July and appointed a Dean at the same time, Koonathan is gaining lots of experience dealing with hurricanes, something that isn’t taught in the seminary.
“It’s a challenge to help people keep their faith, especially since so many of my parishioners are scattered,” said Koonathan. “We are celebrating our weekend Mass at 2 p.m. on Sundays at Our Lady Queen of Heaven, and daily Mass is held in the chapel in my rectory. I try to keep in touch with many of the parishioners.”
Father Koonathan reminds people that how we overcome challenges that the Lord puts in front of us is important. “God is giving us many lessons. Every struggle that we go through in our life is a way that the Lord gives us to grow stronger in our faith,” he said.
Recovery partners assist with process
Another important piece to the process are DCMC Partners and The Lemoine Company, LLC, to assist with recovery efforts. The firms are providing project management support and are responsible for overseeing and executing Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) funded projects resulting from the hurricanes.
“The breadth and depths of losses within the Diocese are astounding,” said Rodrigue. “We think the Diocese experienced at least $60-$100 million in losses, possibly more. This situation created an unprecedented challenge and was a driver for the Diocese’s decision to seek outside expert assistance.”
“It is critical that our many parishes, schools and service entities get the help they need so that we can continue to provide needed services and spiritual support in our communities,” said Bishop Provost. “Our decision to hire DCMC Partners and The Lemoine Company is helping us begin our recovery process to fully restore our Diocese for today, as well as tomorrow.”
Bishop Provost acknowledged that rebuilding is part of the recovery and that will take a very long time. “We need perseverance and fortitude to be able to face the recovery that is going to take years to accomplish,” he said.
Insurance coverage is shared between the churches, rectories, schools and administrative offices throughout the Diocese. Father Buller said the Hurricane Recovery Team has learned a lot in the short time since the two storms.
“We have learned about central billing and payments. All of our parishes are sending their recovery bills to the Diocese, and the Diocese is paying them because it makes it easier to track spending whenever we go for reimbursement to insurance or FEMA,” Buller said. “This is why DCMC and the Lemoine Company is so important. We are hoping to be able to utilize public funds to help in rebuilding our parishes and schools.”
The roof of the Chancery on Iris Street, that houses Tribunal, Fiscal, and the Bishop’s office, collapsed leaving the building unusable for the unforeseen future. The Office of Catholic Schools in the next block also suffered damage. Father Buller, whose office was on the first floor of the Chancery, now carries out his duties as Chief of Recovery from a mobile office, better known as his car.
Understanding this will be the case for quite some time, Buller said, “Between a phone and my car, I can do most everything that needs to be done.”
Fiscal is operating from Camp Karol Lodge, the Catholic youth retreat center in Moss Bluff, while the OCS is set up in the Bishop Harold Perry diocesan ministries building across the street from the Chancery.
This isn’t the first major hurricane to disrupt the Lake Charles diocese. In 2005, Hurricane Rita damaged the Chancery as well as some churches, but the focus of the rebuilding was on the coastal churches in Cameron Parish.
“For Laura, we have damage at every parish in the Diocese,” said Father Buller, “some more significant than others, but there isn’t a parish that hasn’t been totally spared. When we look at the scope of the damage across the board, three to five years, possibly longer, would be a reasonable timetable to get the Diocese stable again.”
Of the six schools in the Diocese, the only one that opened immediately after Hurricane Laura was Our Lady Immaculate in Jennings. Our Lady Queen of Heaven Catholic School and Immaculate Conception Cathedral School both opened on September 24 for in-person learning, only to be closed again briefly after Hurricane Delta. As of October 19, five schools were back in session for face-to-face learning with all grade levels.
At St. Margaret of Scotland Catholic School, Pre-K3, Pre-K4 and Kindergarten students returned to classrooms in the church’s Family Center, where they will complete the remainder of the 2020-2021 school year. Students in grades 1-8 are expected to return to campus by November 1 depending on the installation of temporary buildings while the school’s main building is repaired. In the meantime, those students are attending classes virtually.
Our Lady’s School in Sulphur is holding classes in a portion of their main building while they await temporary buildings to finish out the school year. ICCS and OLQH have also both returned to their campuses for face-to-face learning.
St. Louis Catholic High School students, who had been participating in virtual classes, returned to campus on October 21. The high school suffered extensive destruction during Hurricane Laura, as did St. Margaret and Our Lady’s School.
To offset the days missed from the closures, the Office of Catholic Schools has added 11 full days to its calendar. Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks have been shortened, and students will attend school until June 4, 2021.
Catholic Charities of Southwest Louisiana
Catholic Charities of Southwest Louisiana, under the leadership of Sister Miriam MacLean, Religious Sister of Mercy, has been a lifeline for those in need of food and supplies. The day same day as Hurricane Laura, and the day after Delta, the non-profit agency was on the ground running to assess the situation and provide assistance.
“We are here, we are open and we are trying to meet the needs of the community,” said Sister Miriam who noted that close to 300 cars drove through the day after Delta. In one of the posts on the Catholic Charities Facebook page, it was reported that 7,000 pounds of food and 500 hot meals had been distributed in one day. Sister Miriam expressed her gratitude to Second Harvest and the many volunteers who are helping make it happen.
Father Buller emphasized the dedicated efforts of Catholic Charities noting that the most important thing is that the Catholic Church is present and the Church is there to help everyone. He also acknowledged the generosity of the dioceses in Louisiana and the countless number of bishops and dioceses throughout the United States as well.
In addition to food and supplies, Catholic Charities also offers free laundry services at their location in Lake Charles, 1225 Second Street. Sign-up is available between 8:30 a.m. and 9:00 a.m. Monday through Friday to do your own laundry or receive a voucher for Ray’s Laundry.
Assistance with Catholic cemeteries
The Diocese of Lake Charles is working with the Louisiana Cemetery Task Force to coordinate public meetings October 20-21 to inform those whose family graves (Catholic, private, and public) were damaged by Hurricanes Laura and/or Delta of available funding. FEMA will be in attendance to explain the FEMA funding process.
Attendees should register in advance for “funeral assistance” by calling FEMA at 800-621-3362, visiting www.disasterassistance.gov, or using the FEMA Mobile App.
The Diocese is grateful for the assistance of Attorney General Jeff Landry, Chairman Ryan Seidemann, and the Louisiana Cemetery Task Force. Anyone needing assistance who is unable to attend one of the meetings may contact his office at 225-326-6056 or my email at email@example.com.
Central phone lines in place for Diocese
To contact the Diocese of Lake Charles, please call 337-888-6026 during regular office hours, 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.
To contact Catholic Charities of Southwest Louisiana, call their office at 337-439-7436 during regular business hours, 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.