OLL, Slidell, parishioners rebuilt from scratch

Because he was not yet pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Slidell when Hurricane Katrina inundated 90 percent of his parish community, Msgr. Frank Lipps asked two longtime parishioners to share their reflections on the event and its aftermath. Msgr. Lipps became Our Lady of Lourdes' pastor in April 2006, succeeding Father Adrian Hall, who is now retired.

Almost 'ain't dere no more'
By Norman Pizza
Our Lady of Lourdes, Slidell

When I drove back into Slidell after Hurricane Katrina, I saw trees down, signs blown over, street lights out, windows broken, homes of my friends cut in pieces by fallen trees, mud lines marking the water’s high point and the detritus of a storm.

These things were ugly but not unexpected.

With each home, business, fallen tree and broken house, waves of weariness washed over me: What was left? What had to be done? How would we do it? How long it would take? And then who would stay with us?

And then we saw our church.

Its bones were there.

Its flesh was gone.

Standing alone with my
wife in the heat of the day, the sun shining with a smile, we could only stare into the jaw of its bare, skinless skeleton. No pews, no roof, no altar, no statues and no people.

Death has an awful smell, and so does the remains of a hurricane. Marsh grass and marsh mud mixed together, cooking under that smiling sun, probably cause the smell, but is hard to endure with heat, waste, no water and the stark lonely reality that the community is gone.

Then wariness comes along.

Who is here? Can they be trusted? Do we know them? Will they help us or hurt us?

Darkness exaggerates these feelings and fear growls in your gut with each noise and each unfamiliar person that passes, infrequent though they are. You find yourself wanting help and sometimes afraid of the helpers.

Even worse, sometimes jealousy creeps in that some neighbors are free to help because they are undamaged, while we have to work; we have to endure; we have to rebuild.

We had to clean and rebuild because this was our community. Our family was here. We could not leave them. They needed us and we really needed them.

And we began to see them. They were working, too – all filled with the same feelings and thoughts. We worked together; we shared the pain together; we shared the awfulness together. No one had water; no one had cool air; no one had a home to sleep in.

It was these shared emotions among families that finally made our reconstruction sustainable.

Prayers began, and finally the Mass – not Mass in the church, because it was gone; Mass with our friends and family, with our community, outside the broken bones and torn skin of the old Our Lady of Lourdes Church. Mass under the hot sun in early September. Only plastic bottles of water offered coolness, but we persevered because the community was there.

Civilization was nearby – TVs, phones, cars, airplanes and undamaged buildings were close, but they were not part of your life. It was ridiculous to be so close to normalcy but not be a part of it for a long time to come.

Only laughter and prayer and love got us through these times, but we did get through them. And the Mass – Mass with the Eucharist, with our fellow parishioners, with our priest, with Jesus – gave us strength to persevere. We got the strength to not just live, but to live with purpose.

How was it possible to have so much joy – even excitement – when after a three months of cold water, your hot water heater is delivered, the gas is on and you actually can take a hot bath? It’s amazing!

This continued each day as the rebuilding continued. We would see more friends. They were coming back because we were back. Now we could have not just a church, but a church building for the community.

We dreamed big and thought, “Let’s make it better – higher from the floodwaters, grander than its ancestor, a new beautiful home for the community that has returned.”

But first, we went back to the old church. We had to have something to remember before it was gone. I took a relic. Relics are broken pieces of wood still bearing the gold and red paint on broken trim. It was cracked marble, torn cloth, all evoking the memory of Masses held with the community in the building that was Our Lady of Lourdes. Here was the place of first Communions, weddings, my first day as an altar server. I had to preserve those memories.

It's odd that broken bits of stuff can restore the brokenness of our minds caused by a disaster -- but they do.

Then God showed his hand. He helps you see that some of this “junk” is not junk. It can be restored become a part of the new church. What began as “relic hunting” suddenly became preservation. God showed us his humor.

Katrina made us realize that a church is just a building – an important building – but only bricks, mortar, steel, wood and glass.

The soul of the church is the people. The parishioners give life, joy, laughter and tears – not the building.

When the people returned, the soul of Our Lady of Lourdes returned to the church. Jesus in the Mass brought us back together. The Mass was the gathering place where we discovered that we were back and we were staying.

Katrina was hard, but the people of Our Lady of Lourdes Parish were hardier and heartier. Ten years later, we are stronger and better, a vibrant loving community of believers bound together by the fact that Jesus Christ is God, our Creator and the source of love and commu- nity.

Attorney Norman Pizza and his wife Diane raised their eight children in Our Lady of Lourdes Parish, Slidell.

A 'profound' journey of rebirth
By Shawn McManus
Our Lady of Lourdes, Slidell

What are your memories of the church building after Hurricane Katrina?
Nothing could have prepared me for what I witnessed upon arrival back in my hometown the day after the storm passed. The massive destruction had made it take on a post-apocalyptic appearance. Seeing the church that I grew up in flattened was surreal and did not seem possible, even as I gazed upon it with my own eyes. I took a picture, which actually revealed rays of sunlight shining through the destruction – prophetically saying, perhaps, that a brighter day would dawn again for us at Our Lady of Lourdes.

What thoughts are summoned when you look at the photo of Archbishop Alfred Hughes surveying the damage?
This Clarion Herald image brought forth a flood of memories since it was the same vantage point from where I was blessed to be an altar server and lector weekly at Our Lady of Lourdes since 1976. Despite the devastation, I can see our Christmas and Easter decorations, adorning the aisles and walls, as indelible images in my mind. I can hear the choir lifting their voices in song, with both string and wind instruments rejoicing audibly through the celebration of our most holy Masses.

What are some of the lessons of Katrina?
Our Lady of Lourdes is the only parish I’ve been blessed to belong to in my lifetime. It truly is my home away from home. Just as my own residence was severely damaged by flooding and falling trees just blocks away, so was my spiritual home taken away that fateful day. Katrina was a life-changing event whereby I came to understand the folly of material desires and the importance of other things in my life – my birth and spiritual families. This was so clearly and instantly clarified by the experience.

What is Katrina’s silver lining?
While I knew that the Romanesque church I adored and grew up in might not return exactly the way it was, the blessings that have been bestowed upon our parish since Katrina have been profound. Many difficult days, months and years followed this time as parishioners put our hearts and souls into whatever gifts we could offer to the rebuilding of our parish church and school. Through God’s grace, support came from many unforeseen places to help us get back on our feet. The diligence and dedication of so many in our parish saw us through a capital campaign to help us get to where we are today.

Shawn McManus, who works for the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff's Department, is a lifetime parishioner of Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Slidell. An altar server from fifth grade through his college years, McManus currently serves his parish as a lector.

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