Diocese of Lake Charles
Two hurricanes and more than two months later, there are still visible reminders of destruction caused by Hurricanes Laura and Delta in the Diocese of Lake Charles. For many Catholics, those reminders are especially evident in their churches.
From roofs being ripped off to windows being blown in, the catastrophic storms were not strong enough, however, to destroy the dedication of priests across the five-parish region.
Within days after both hurricanes made landfall — Laura, a Category 4 hurricane on August 27, and Delta, a Category 2 on October 9 — many priests began celebrating Masses. Among those was His Excellency, Bishop Glen John Provost, who remained in the Diocese for both storms.
“The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass will continue to be offered by priests wherever possible, even if there is only one person in attendance,” Bishop Provost said. He was able to celebrate Mass at his usual Sunday time in the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception on August 30, just three days after Hurricane Laura.
Early on, pastors relied on generators to provide lights and limited air-conditioning in the sweltering temperatures of the summer heat.
“We were able to have Mass the Sunday after Laura in the day chapel,” said Monsignor Daniel A. Torres, Vicar General and pastor of Our Lady Queen of Heaven Catholic Church. “A lot of people still had not come back since the city was like a war zone. There was a total of around 26 people that first weekend. We are on a full schedule now, including weekdays, in the main church.”
Torres praised the leadership of Mayor Nic Hunter, the Calcasieu Parish Police Jury, Lake Charles City Council, Entergy and the work crews who came from all over to restore power.
“We were on a generator after Laura for only two and half weeks, and that was a miracle,” he said. “To have the power restored in under three weeks was amazing since they were saying it could be as long as four weeks.”
Parishioners at St. Theodore Catholic Church in Moss Bluff had to wait two weeks before they were able to gather for the Sunday liturgy.
Upon assessing the damages and finding broken windows, water-soaked carpet, and pews covered with debris, the first thought that crossed the pastor’s mind was how soon he would be able to celebrate Mass.
“In times such as these, people need to have their faith supported so they do not despair,” said the Very Rev. Aubrey Guilbeau, who also serves as Vicar for Clergy. “As a pastor, I am concerned with the physical wellbeing of parishioners, but most of all I am called to be their spiritual shepherd.”
Father Guilbeau celebrated Mass by candlelight initially. Later, he relied on use of a large generator, and in time, power was restored.
“People were grateful for the utilities that eventually offered comfort to our Masses, but most of all they were thankful to be able to gather in their church to give praise and thanks to God,” Guilbeau said. “Our church building is a humble structure now, but the real beauty comes from the people who are the Church.”
The coastal parishes of Our Lady Star of the Sea in Cameron, Sacred Heart of Jesus in Creole, St. Eugene in Grand Chenier, St. Mary of the Lake in Big Lake, St. Peter the Apostle in Hackberry, and Our Lady of the Assumption in Johnson Bayou were among the most heavily impacted churches.
“I have never seen so much damage in all my life,” said Monsignor James Gaddy, pastor of St. Mary of the Lake Catholic Church about the devastation of Hurricane Laura. “As bad as it was in Lake Charles, it was twice as bad in Grand Lake.”
With one side of its roof completely ripped off by 150-mph winds from Laura, St. Mary of the Lake is unusable for the unforeseeable future. But, Monsignor Gaddy hasn’t let that keep him from celebrating Mass for anyone back in the area trying to pick up the pieces of their lives. He and Father D.B. Thompson, pastor of Our Lady Star of the Sea and Sacred Heart of Jesus, share the same location to offer Masses for their parishioners.
“While the church and hall for St. Mary of the Lake were undergoing mitigation, we used the community center next to the fire station in Grand Lake for a few weeks after Laura,” said Gaddy. “I would celebrate Mass there on Saturday afternoon, and Father Thompson would say Mass at 8 a.m. on Sunday. Now, the St. Mary of the Lake church hall is used for Masses. I have since added a 10 a.m. Mass on Sunday in addition to the 4 p.m. Saturday Mass. We are going to be using the hall for at least a couple of years.”
Other churches in the diocese have also supported one another until each can stand on its own again.
“Immaculate Conception in Sulphur helped St. John Bosco Catholic Church with Masses for several weeks,” said Monsignor Torres, “and the parishioners of Christ the King celebrate Mass at 2 p.m. on Sundays at Our Lady Queen of Heaven since their church was destroyed.”
The Rev. Rojo Koonathan, H.G.N., V.F., pastor of Christ the King Catholic Church and Dean of the South Deanery, said it is a challenge to help people keep their faith, especially with so many of his parishioners scattered.
“I try to remind people that how we overcome challenges that the Lord puts in front us is important,” Father Koonathan said. “Every struggle that we go through in our life is a way that the Lord gives us to grow stronger in our faith.”
Even in the midst of their own struggles, priests are going the extra mile for the faithful because they know the importance of God’s love and mercy through the sacraments.
“The sacraments grace us with the ability to see that as God is with us, there is nothing or no one that can destroy us,” Torres said. “Not even a pandemic, not hurricanes, not politics or economic struggles.”
Experiencing firsthand how faith helps people face challenges brought about by the storms, Father Guilbeau is one of many priests who has been displaced from his rectory because of extensive damage.
“I have learned to live with less. I have learned to be more patient. I have learned you can joyfully praise the Lord even in simple surroundings,” Guilbeau said. “People have returned to Mass as they are able, and our faith is expressed in our trust in God, even in these difficult times.”
Note: For schedule of Masses around the Diocese of Lake Charles, click here.