From Calvary to the cavalry

Holy Family House, Ascension of Our Lord’s modest parish meeting hall, has been living up to its name in the weeks since Hurricane Isaac sent floodwaters into nearly 7,000 LaPlace homes.

Ground Zero of the parish’s hands-on, multi-pronged response to the Aug. 29 storm, the building is stacked high with crates of bananas and pre-made meals for flood-weary residents, and hosts Catholic Charities case workers assisting those who need help with everything from filling out FEMA forms to crisis counseling.

But Holy Family House’s most distinctive feature is the long table taped with sheets listing phoned-in requests for assistance with jobs large and small. Since Sept. 3, Mike Abbate, supervisor of this low-tech but efficient emergency system, has devoted 12-hour days to deploying crews of volunteers to each job site, checking off tasks that have been completed on a nearby chalkboard.

“This is command central,” said Abbate, caretaker of Ascension of Our Lord Parish and School grounds, noting that the day’s count exceeded 70 volunteers. “We’re dispatching help as people are calling in. They need their house cleaned, they need their house gutted, they need furniture hauled away – whatever their need is. A 75-year-old man spent the whole day with us yesterday ripping carpet out of people’s houses.”

Abbate said his most distressing call came from an elderly couple who had been stuck in their home for more than a week, with no outside contact in their semi-deserted neighborhood.

“They didn’t have any food or water or electricity. We brought them a generator and some gasoline, and food for several days,” said Abbate, noting that other top requests have included cleaning supplies and plastic storage bins.

Positive spirit prevails

Although it offers help to all, the parish made helping the roughly 30 school families who lost all their belongings – a number that included eight Ascension of Our Lord teachers – one of its priorities. Donations of school uniforms, clothing and household items crammed Bosco Hall in anticipation of the Sept. 10 restart of school, while the school parking lot was turned into a pop-up drive-thru line for a daily hot lunch, prepared and distributed by parishioners, Catholic Charities and volunteers from outside agencies such as the Salvation Army.

“Everyone is positive; everyone is upbeat. There are people who are despondent because they lost everything, but they seem to be taking it well,” noted Father Walter Austin, Ascension of Our Lord’s pastor, who accompanied Catholic Charities staffers on a post-storm tour of churches and neighborhoods throughout St. John the Baptist civil parish to assess needs, coordinate outreach and collaborate with local agencies.

Father Austin, whose pastoral duties include celebrating daily Mass at his parish and at Place Dubourg, a Christopher Homes property in LaPlace, said helping residents gut and rebuild their flooded homes will be a major parish priority for as long as it takes.

“Father Austin told us at Mass: ‘You’ve got to get back to some kind of normality in your life, whatever that is, and the faster you get back to that sense of normality, the better shape you’re going to be in,” Abbate said. “You can buy a new house, you can all get new furniture, you can get a new refrigerator, but you can’t get a new person. Try to get back to some kind of normal, stable base and work your way from that stable base.”

Abbate should know. His home also flooded, but after making calls to his insurance agent and a local company, he was able to re-inhabit his house, equipped with the bare basics, with his wife and son.

“That has allowed me to come do this – to spend my time to help others find normalcy,” Abbate said. “You can sit in your house all day and cry, or you can do something about it,” he said. “We can say to you, ‘Hey let’s get your house cleaned out. Can we help you with anything?’ We want to put them in a space where it’s a little more bearable to them, to where they realize, ‘Hey, this is behind us. I might not be able to live in my house for a couple of months, but at least it’s drying out, it’s airing out.’”

Gym becomes childcare hub

Similar scenes played out at LaPlace’s other Catholic church, St. Joan of Arc. With damage to its parish plant confined to minor wind damage to the exterior of the school, walkway awnings and a few windows, the parish was able to turn over its parking lot and sprawling Family Life Center to the recovery effort.

The gym was transformed into a daycare center to help parents who had to report to their regular jobs or clean up their homes, with students from temporarily closed St. Joan of Arc Elementary School serving as volunteer babysitters. Another large room dispatches emergency meals and houses tables of donated clothing, shoes and baby supplies.

“This (makeshift emergency supply center) is not just for the parish; this is not just for Catholics; this is a great opportunity for us to show what Catholic faith really is,” said Angelle Delaneuville, a St. Joan of Arc alumna and teacher who was volunteering at the site.

“Regardless of your beliefs or your denomination, this is our community. You see how people who have lost are just as generous as people who have not,” Delaneuville added, recalling how one volunteer who had three feet of water in her home wrote a $100 check for hurricane relief.

“I told her she needed (the money), and she said, ‘No, everyone needs it,’” Delaneuville said.

A Facebook page listing specific items lost in the flood was set up by a school parent, and has caught the attention of St. Joan of Arc alumni from as far away as Ohio. A collection from Sugarland, Texas, spearheaded by St. Charles Catholic High alumni Danny Kliebert and his wife, Megan, recently arrived by U-Haul, offering a Pack and Play, bleach, children’s clothes, toiletries and some of the most asked-for items of all: plastic storage containers.

Father John-Nhan Tran, St. Joan of Arc’s pastor, also hit the ground running in the days following Isaac, driving to shelters in Alexandria and Shreveport to help evacuated parishioners reconnect with their families, find temporary housing, and to extend the prayerful support of parishioners and Archbishop Gregory Aymond. Father Tran said his parishioners have been “pretty positive,” with those who were able to do so attending Mass even when the church was without electricity.

“It was kind hot in there – my Mass was a half an hour,” Father Tran said, “but I told them that the parish would be there to do anything it could to assist the recovery effort. We have two sign-up sheets in church: one for those who need help, and another for those who were not affected by the flood, to ask for their volunteer help.”

All hands on deck

Father Tran was one of those volunteers, joining his parishioners and Father Garrett O’Brien and Deacon Colin Braud – St. Joan of Arc’s parochial vicar and intern, respectively – in the gutting operation. The team’s first priority – to clear the flooded homes of teachers – has been completed; however, parish volunteers will continue to help all those in need of assistance, and is coordinating with groups such as Beacon of Hope and Project Homecoming to recruit additional volunteers.

On one recent morning, about 20 student and adult volunteers from St. Charles Catholic High gathered in St. Joan of Arc’s parking lot to board a school bus bound for a day of work in the hard-hit Palmetto subdivision.

“The message is, don’t lose hope in yourself, don’t lose hope in one another, and certainly don’t lose hope in the Lord,” Father Tran said. “Together, with God’s grace, we are going to be able to help each other to rebuild. For those who are affected – let us know if there is anything we can do for you; for those who are not affected – we need your help, not just to simply say, ‘I feel your pain,’ but to do something concretely.”

“We thank God for the fact that we did not lose any lives,” he added. “All the material things are replaceable. I come from Vietnam, and in a split second we lost everything, and many Vietnamese left (the country) with nothing. Things that we collect over the years, we will collect them once again.”

For more information on how to help recovery efforts at the two churches, or to request assistance, call Ascension of Our Lord at (985) 652-2615 and St. Joan of Arc at (985) 652-9100.

Beth Donze can be reached at

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