Father Gerard Stapleton, pastor of St. Patrick Church in Port Sulphur, knows and loves his parishioners. They are hard workers whose families have, for generations, lived off the land and waters of lower Plaquemines Parish as farmers, fishermen and shrimpers.
Having survived Hurricane Betsy in 1965, the people consider their area a paradise. While maybe not an extravagant haven for all, it was one they wouldn’t abandon without a fight.
When Hurricane Katrina barreled through the sliver of land located between the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico, it left devastation in its trail
“We didn’t have a lot before the storm, but what we had was taken,” Father Stapleton said.
Rushed back to no avail
Father Stapleton was in Ireland visiting family when Katrina hit on Aug. 29, 2005. He tried desperately to return on his scheduled Aug. 30 flight, only making it as far as Lafayette.
“I came back in as soon as we were allowed back into the parish,” he said. “Sheriff (Irvin “Jiff”) Hingle helped me. When I came back, there was nothing left.”
Water had risen more than 10 feet inside the church, to the bottom of the choir loft and exit signs. Several area residents found refuge in the church before Katrina, only to be trapped amid rising waters.
“They were picked up by the sheriff and brought by rescue boats to Belle Chasse and Gretna, and then helicoptered to Baton Rouge and Lafayette shelters,” he said.
The church pews, newly installed a month before Katrina, were destroyed and floated out the windows, Father Stapleton said. The stained glass window panels were damaged, except for St. Michael the Archangel. The Stations of the Cross and statuary also were wrecked as was the rectory/church office.
“Our parish had to be rewired from the ground up,” he said. “We had to take out everything. The salt water did a tremendous amount of damage, eating through the copper and brass. Everything had to be new: a new air conditioning, etc. Everything had to be replaced.”
There was never a doubt the church parish would return, so Father Stapleton worked quickly with encouragement from then-Archbishop Alfred Hughes. Pews from another church were donated, and a Catholic group from Alexandria, Louisiana, spent a week onsite cleaning and polishing them.
The parish cemetery also was in a shambles, Father Stapleton said, from the floods that had covered its mausoleum, rammed wood into the front and caused coffins to float out of in-ground tombs. Two marble mausoleum tombs were repaired.
“The front took the brunt of the damage,” he said.
While organizing repairs, Father Stapleton lived with Father Otis Young, then pastor at Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Belle Chasse, giving up a FEMA trailer he had been given to electricians from Idaho and other workers who were restoring the parish.
The parish’s first Mass after Katrina was celebrated Nov. 1, 2005, with 30 people using folding chairs inside the church, which at that time had no windows and no electricity.
“When I started celebrating Mass here, the people would come back, no matter where they were living (as far away as Baton Rouge or Lafayette),” he said. “When they found out we were celebrating Mass, they came back, even under difficult conditions. We had no air conditioning here. They would bring cold drinks and sandwiches, and we’d have a little gathering after Mass on Sunday, and I would let them know where we were in the process of repairing the parish.”
He said people continued to support the parish, even though their personal circumstances were less than ideal – some were living with relatives; others in shelters.
“Everything fell into place,” Father Stapleton said about the church renovations, and the people began returning.
In 2006 – when the first stage of archdiocesan restructuring was announced – St. Jude in Diamond was closed, and its territory was assumed by St. Patrick. In 2008, Our Lady of Good Harbor in Buras merged with St. Patrick, with St. Ann in Empire serving as a mission church. Two other mission churches, St. Joseph in Potash and St. Anthony in Boothville-Venice, closed.
Second storm too much
Then, Hurricane Isaac hit in 2008 followed by the BP oil spill in 2010. Those catastrophes were too much for some long-time residents, especially when homeowners’ and flood insurance rose to unaffordable rates for a proud, hard-working community. Hurricane Isaac caused $35,000 worth of damage to the parish alone.
“You live in an area by the Gulf of Mexico surrounded by water. If an accident takes place, it’s major,” he said. “The reality was people weren’t coming back. Some people cut their losses and moved on. They had been through (hurricanes) Betsy (1965) and Camille (1969), and I think Katrina was the final straw for people. A lot of people just didn’t want to live (indefinitely) in a FEMA trailer. We had a lot of houses down here before the storm.”
Now the area is dotted with trailers.
But, Father Stapleton has seen young and old move back into Plaquemines Parish, and the fishing industry and farms have begun to return. St. Patrick has about 300 families actively worshipping (before Katrina, there were approximately 400). Two Sunday Masses and a vigil Mass are celebrated at St. Patrick, and a Saturday Vigil at 6:30 p.m. at St. Ann Mission.
“If not for the storms, this would be one of the main areas in the country for fishing, tourism and so forth,” Father Stapleton said. “It’s hard to keep on rebuilding and rebuilding.”
But, he says, the parish has survived and done remarkably well.
“The people have remained loyal to the church, and we’ve had new people coming into the parish,” he said. “You have hard-working people who are very resilient, who make a living out of fishing in the Gulf. It’s still a great place to live and work, despite all the trouble they went through. Hopefully, God will protect us from the majority of storms and watch over our coastline.”