Nuns Build ’15 continues post-Katrina renaissance


Some see only the “missing teeth” – the vacant lots and shuttered houses that cause some blocks of post-Katrina New Orleans to resemble a jack-o’-lantern.


But Sister of Charity Roberta Feil prefers to focus on the glow radiating from homes that are restored and inhabited.

“(These are) the signs of light and life that give the jack-o’-lantern his eyes,” said Sister Roberta, 70, reflecting during a break from her “light-giving” tasks of the day: installing drywall at a house on Vermillion Street in New Orleans that soon will welcome back its family for the first time since the 2005 disaster.

Last week, two dozen women religious and 40 laypeople partnered with the non-profit St. Bernard Project in an endeavor called “Nuns Build,” fanning out over four vacant houses in Gentilly’s Milneburg neighborhood to install insulation, drywall, bathroom tiling and other interior touches.

With every nail and cut, the volunteer renovators considered the future residents.

“The homeowner (on Vermillion Street) spent close to $68,000 of her own money trying to get home, but because of contractor fraud and dealing with bureaucracies that sometimes can make you live on the edge of rage, there have been very many barriers,” said Sister of Charity Monica Gundler, coordinator of this year’s Nuns Build and a veteran of seven of the eight mounted since 2009.

“Most of the folks who are coming back to these houses are people who have worked – they had lives, they had families, they had work,” Sister Monica said, describing the owner of the Vermillion Street home – a daycare center operator and mother of two who has moved seven times since Katrina and currently rents in the city.

“You’re trying to keep your business afloat, trying to rent, trying to rebuild your house – how do you choose where your money’s going to go?” asked Sister Monica. “You’ve got to feed your family, too. Our homeowner is that typical person of when everybody rips every rug out from under you, how do you build it back up?”

Charity Sisters adopt home


Bringing back the house on Vermillion Street is extra special to the Sisters of Charity. Wanting to do something special to mark the Year of Consecrated Life, the 10th anniversary of Katrina and the 40th anniversary of the canonization of their patroness St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, the congregation’s federation of 13 communities banded together to raise $25,000 to sponsor this particular address through the St. Bernard Project. Since 2006, that program has rebuilt homes for more than 950 disaster-stricken families with the help of 100,000 volunteers.

Sister Roberta, who is based in Rockaway, New York, said while this was her first experience with Nuns Build, 13 years of constructing and renovating homes for families in the indigent Appalachia region of West Virginia had taught her an array of skills. Many of those homes had no running water and were insulated with cardboard boxes, she said.

“We did painting, roofing, building porches, digging outhouses, putting in handicapped ramps, but I’ve never done drywall and insulation before,” said Sister Roberta, who is currently on her sabbatical year following more than a decade ministering to individuals with HIV-AIDS in the Diocese of Paterson, New Jersey.

Sister Roberta said the biggest challenge at the Vermillion Street residence was the precise measurements and cuts required of the “cotton candy” insulation and drywall inside a house whose studs weren’t “totally standard.

After morning prayer and breakfast, the volunteers donned gloves, masks, long-sleeved shirts, hats and scarves to fend off the invasion of the insulation’s itchy fiberglass filaments.

“We powdered up every day with baby powder to kind of clog our pores – so the insulation wouldn’t get into the pores,” Sister Roberta said.

“We take so much for granted in our lives,” she added. “It’s good to know that families that have had to be shifted from one place to another for 10 years will soon have the comforts of home – their own bed, their own living room, the opportunity to wash their clothes when they need to wash them, a school system they can trust, a neighborhood where their children can play with other kids.”

Partners include KCs


This year’s Nuns Build volunteers, who hailed from nearly 20 states, worked from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. for an entire work week, stopping only to eat lunch provided by several local councils of the Knights of Columbus. Also providing food and shelter were the St. Jude Community Center and local communities of women religious.

Many still returning to N.O.

In addition to the Sisters of Charity, elbow grease was provided by Ursuline, Dominican, Franciscan, Holy Faith, Religious of the Sacred Heart and St. Chretienne communities from across the country.

Nuns Build 2015 tackled interior work on three other houses: one on Frankfurt Street; the remaining two “opportunity houses” on St. Roch Avenue – new builds that will be offered at an affordable price to qualifying families.

A veteran of all eight Nuns Build efforts, Dominican Sister of Hope Sharon Yount of Newburgh, New York, was busy all week mudding and taping drywall at one of the opportunity houses.

“I come because people are still in need down here and I love the people,” said Sister Sharon, 67. She said that while she sees fewer “X-marked” houses than in her early days of helping post-Katrina New Orleans, “we still know that there are a lot of people still waiting to come home.”

Sister Sharon, who rebuilt homes for low-income residents of Maine in a previous ministry, noted how the St. Bernard Project also is rebuilding houses in her home state in the wake of Super Storm Sandy. She called Nuns Build a “witness to the world” about the varied ministries of women religious.

“Many (lay) people have not worked side by side with sisters before or been able to hear our stories,” Sister Sharon said. “Pope Francis said one of the themes for the Year of Consecrated Life is to ‘wake up the world,’” she said. “(Nuns Build) witnesses to how we can do that.”

Nuns Build was launched by Adrian Dominican Sister Mary Keefe.

Beth Donze can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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