Diocese of Lake Charles
Heroes with halos is one way to describe hurricane relief efforts going on in the Diocese of Lake Charles.
Sister Miriam MacLean, R.S.M., executive director of Catholic Charities of Southwest Louisiana, was on the ground running within hours of Laura’s August 27 landfall, and again the day after Hurricane Delta’s arrival on October 9. Since then, Catholic Charities has been a lifeline for the five-parish region impacted by back-to-back hurricanes.
With the help of countless volunteers, Sister Miriam and the Religious Sisters of Mercy have not stopped in their efforts to serve the broken down and broken hearted.
“We are here, we are open, and we are trying to meet the needs of the community,” said Sister Miriam. “The Lord preserved Catholic Charities from any major damage (from both storms) allowing us to be operational during a time when people desperately need help.”
Early on, Catholic Charities was operating with a generator and a staff of three and relied heavily on church parishes to serve as distribution sites for food and supplies. As the community’s needs increased after being hit by a second hurricane, Sister Miriam was grateful to have four more Religious Sisters of Mercy from its motherhouse in Alma, Michigan, assist for a couple of weeks.
“Those church parishes that could organize distribution centers were amazing and did so much, but they were tired,” said Sister Miriam. “I knew we needed to step up our game, even more after Delta, to help fill the gap.”
In a two-month period, nearly 750 pallets including food, water, cleaning and baby supplies, were delivered to churches as far as Big Lake, Kinder, Jennings, Vinton, and many locations in Lake Charles, Sulphur, Moss Bluff and Ragley. Keeping things in perspective, one pallet of food holds anywhere from 800-1,100 pounds of food.
Whether it is driving Catholic Charities’ 26-foot truck “Big Joe” to transport supplies, serving hot meals, unloading and organizing food from Second Harvest, or working a shift in the laundry trailer, Sister Miriam said it has been beautiful to see how much can be accomplished with volunteers.
“It’s such a gift to see the Lord providing between so many generous people. One of the greatest gifts has been that Catholic Charities is able to remain steady and make its presence known,” she said. “It is a reminder that the Church has served the poor for 2,000 years. This is not a time to crumble or to withdraw, but a time to be Christ’s light in a time when people are fearful not knowing where their next meal is coming from, to know help is out there.”
The motivation and drive illustrated by the Religious Sisters of Mercy has captivated warehouse specialist, Anthony Clemons. On loan from Second Harvest Food Bank in Lafayette, he has been assisting at Catholic Charities since a couple of weeks after Hurricane Laura. Clemons makes the commute from Lafayette to Lake Charles five to six days a week keeping a record of all the donations coming in and going out — anything from toilet tissue to baby wipes, generators to tarps, rakes, detergent and cleaning supplies, canned goods and bottled water.
“It’s magnificent to be a part of this. It’s just like Christmas, the spirit of giving,” said Clemons who was raised with seven of his own sisters. To be working with the “flying nuns,” he affectionately calls the Religious Sisters, is uplifting, he said. “They are so spiritual and are like family to me.”
Clemons said he has always been fascinated by hurricanes but focused later in life on the impact they had on people who lost family members.
“As I grew older, I started realizing lives were being lost, people were displaced and might have nothing left but the shirt on their back,” he recalled. “What can I do to help? I prayed that God would give me the strength to go out to be that vessel for others.”
Clemons is an early riser from his Army days and doesn’t mind the long commute every day.
“God put something in me that called me to want to help,” he said. “The drive back and forth gets shorter and shorter with each trip. I do a lot of thinking and a lot of praying. The most important thing is knowing that I can do my part to help. This area was devastated.”
Clemons played a part in shining the national spotlight on Catholic Charities in late October when ABC’s “Good Morning America” broadcast live from St. Louis Catholic High School. Clemons represented Second Harvest for the segment on Feeding America.
Catholic Charities, known for its mission of providing for the poor, has seen an influx of people reaching out for help because of the hurricanes and ongoing cases of the COVID-19 virus.
Carolyn Washington, receptionist and case worker who is dealing with damages to her own home, said people come in crying about not having anything.
“They just need someone to listen to their stories,” said Washington. “You have to love on these people in need. One day it could be me. Just listening to them is huge. My house isn’t great anymore and every day I see a different crack in my walls, but at least I am still able to put my key in the door.”
Washington said she has seen more people come in who have never asked for assistance, many of them looking for places to live.
“We don’t assist with housing, but Catholic Charities does offer financial assistance with rent and mortgage payments. Many families were requesting tents because they couldn’t afford to stay in hotels any longer,” she said. “Two months after Laura, Catholic Charities had issued nearly $45,000 worth of hotel vouchers helping more than 100 families.”
Recognizing God’s hand in the ministry of helping the poor and vulnerable, Sister Miriam credits the stability of the Religious Sisters of Mercy in keeping her strengthened and energized each day.
“It has been a privilege to have the experience of living our religious life in whatever circumstances we find ourselves,” she said. “The stability of prayer is key to staying focused. After Laura, we were without electricity for eight days, so we prayed with our flashlights in the chapel in the morning. For me, that was a beautiful experience, uncomfortable and hot, but beautiful.”
Sister Miriam knows the need is great in the community and relief efforts will be long term, but she trusts in the generosity of people and God’s goodness.
“Ask for what you need because people will give it to you,” she said. “There comes that time when you realize you can’t do it alone. God does provide. The more generous we are, the more generous He is through His people.”