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Nuns Build: First - and 'always' - responders

“You’ve come to build homes and hearts,” Ursuline Sister Regina Fronmuller said she tells every group of nuns coming to New Orleans as part of the rebuilding effort called Nuns Build.

Since the first Nuns Build in 2009, 69 homes have been rebuilt over seven visits by religious sisters, their friends, family and associates.

In Gentilly the week of Nov. 17, religious and lay volunteers worked on six houses under the tutelage of the St. Bernard Project’s site managers. Standing on ladders and crouching on the floor, the volunteers painted walls, stained stairs, installed shoe molding, flooring and hung doors and any other finishing touches necessary to bring New Orleanians back home.

“I hope we give hope to the people in New Orleans,” Adrian Dominican Sister Sharon Spanbauer said. “They are not forgotten. It’s not like we’ve done a huge thing. ... I hope it keeps people mindful and reminds them that it’s still an issue.”

In between ministries, Sister Sharon said she finally had time to participate in Nuns Build, something she had yearned to do for years to give a voice as a religious to the continued plight suffered by inner-city residents.

“We want to come and help people so they can come back to their home,” said Dominican Sister of Peace Barbara Lavin of Boston, who was on her second Nuns Build. “It’s been nine years since Katrina. We are very interested in the issue of justice, and this certainly is a justice issue of people returning to their homes.”

Sister Regina, a local coordinator of Nuns Build, said approximately 60 volunteers participated this year. She, Charity Sister Monica Gundler and Sacred Heart Sister Anne Byrne coordinate the effort, taking the reins from Nuns Build founder, Adrian Dominican Sister Mary Keefe.

“We have passion for these people (those devastated by Hurricane Katrina) and work with them in other ministries,” Sister Regina said. “When we can get other people with the same mindset to do likewise, it doubles the energy and sets it on fire. It’s contagious.”

Helping others is goal
Sister Mary said the Nuns Build focus hasn’t changed – homes are rebuilt so people have a place to live – only now local groups take a bigger role. The Knights of Columbus and other organizations and individuals fill evenings with suppers and entertainment.

Sister Mary said Nuns Build materialized from a volunteer, door-to-door effort she made with her order in 2007 assessing the needs of St. Bernard residents devastated by the storm. While creating a brochure listing where food, clothing, healthcare, Social Security and rebuilding assistance were available, she encountered the St. Bernard Project and their “Women’s Build” volunteer effort.

Why not a “Nuns Build”? she thought.

She first invited fellow Dominicans and then other local religious orders to gauge interest.

“It works because sisters in the area (New Orleans) open their home to those coming,” Sister Mary said. Four hundred volunteers, representing 10-12 different orders, have come since the first Nuns Build.

“I believed if religious women around the United States knew about the need, they would come. There were already religious congregations that came down after Katrina.”

Sister Mary knew the impact of women religious would extend beyond their physical labor. It would show that “they were concerned about the people of the New Orleans area and that people continued to care about them,” she said.

Stories spread nationwide
Dominican Sister of Hope Sharon Yount didn’t know what to expect the first year she came, so she sent tools ahead, just in case she needed them. Even though the Hurricane Sandy rebuild effort is closer to her home, she has returned to New Orleans.

“Once you come, you get a sense of commitment,” she said.

While here, nuns experience the sadness – when someone shares their Katrina story – and joy of their work when they witness a homeowner returning to their renovated home at the annual Welcome Home ceremony and ribbon cutting.

“It’s wonderful to see when homes are complete and the person comes back,” Sister Barbara of Boston said.

“I find it real special to hear the homeowner’s story,” said Dominican Sister Sue Allbritton, who has come five times. “They never lost hope to return home.”

Sister Sue and other nuns say the different religious congregations bond during Nuns Build.

“It doesn’t make any difference (what order each person comes from),” she said. “We are all religious working together for a common cause and common good.”

“You discover there are not that many differences,” said Sister Sharon Spanbauer, who drove three days from Michigan to get here.

Long-term effort
Sister Regina said the effort sheds light that even almost a decade after a disaster, communities still need help.

“These people will go back to their communities and tell them what they did to help, and others will send donations and come back,” she said.

Sister Regina remains enamored by the nonprofit St. Bernard Project with which Nuns Builds aligns to find houses in the final stages of renovation.

“They are concerned about the human person and doing the job well,” she said. “They train their people.”

Christine Bordelon can be reached at cbordelon@clarion

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