By: Deacon Sal Lema
Have you ever had a religious sister embrace you and cry in your arms? If it ever happens to you, then you will understand my personal commitment to do whatever I can to help her and her Congregation…no matter what!
Nearly a year later, at the very start of the hurricane season, Chicago deacons and volunteers have again returned to New Orleans. In January, six deacons from the Chicago area made a successful initial trip to assist the Congregation of Our Lady of Mount Carmel at their high school academy there. The six rebuilt a 1300 square foot print shop facility in less than five days. Taking a line from United States General Douglas McArthur, who vowed “I shall return,” these deacons and volunteers had the same plan in mind, this time in the hopes of restoring the sisters’ motherhouse located very near the area of the levee breaches. This home was one of the first structures built in the area nearly 80 years ago. It is the residence of some of their senior sisters as well as many who are still in full-time ministry in the New Orleans area. At present these sisters are living in scattered sites in south Louisiana; some in FEMA trailers.
The volunteers who have titled their cause, Project Hope, arrived by car and plane eager to start this twoweek venture in the early weeks of June. They were greeted with temperatures that soared well into the 90’s with a heat humidity index that was above 105. “Us poor northern boys were not used to a heat index in the 100’s,” said Deacon James Dieters, one of the men who made the trip. “Even though bottled water and Gatorade flowed freely, we were ‘sweat- in’ the whole week.” Now, nearly a year since Hurricane Katrina, this facility had just recently received temporary electricity. “I couldn’t imagine that it could take ten months to restore electricity in this day and age in this country,” said James Keith one of the volunteers. “You cannot comprehend the enormity of the situation and pictures do not accurately depict the true nature of the devastation,” said Joseph Sch uerman, another of our volunteers from Prospect Heights, Illinois.
The second story entrance that during Hurricane Katrina had become a boat dock to take many to safety was now the welcoming steps for these volunteers to begin the renovation and reconditioning of the sisters’ home. But this venture was only the beginning, for it will be months more before the congregation would be able to come home again.
With the word "Hope" written on their bright red tee shirts, the ten men brought the skills of plumbing, carpentry, plaster, tile work and the labor of demolition with them. While most were in work far different from this, others shared their professional skills teaching as they went. These “weekend warriors” stated that projects around their own homes prepared them well for this experience.
“I must admit a little fear of the unknown and having some second thoughts about this event,” said Deacon John Rottman, a licensed plumber by trade, who is a deacon at Saint Thecla parish on Chicago’s north side. “I arrived in New Orleans and was immediately greeted by a wonderful community of Carmelite Sisters. Their enthusiasm and stamina in the face of all they encountered was remarkable; but what impressed me the most were all the stories offered about life before the storm (Hurricane Katrina) and the survival and life after the storm.”
In the two weeks time, the motherhouse received a repairing of twenty-four toilets, numerous showers, sinks and the restoring of several broken pipes. The men spent a great deal of time on their knees tearing out rotted floors and installing new cement backer board and ceramic tile in three bathrooms, two laundry rooms and a janitor’s closet. They also demolished and removed all the cabinets and appliances in the houses’ major commercial kitchen on the second floor, and repaired door jambs, plaster walls and removed glue (the remnants of tile and carpeting) from floors throughout the building. “What we did was only a drop in the bucket as the task of rebuilding is so immense,” stated Schuerman. “But once you put a bucket in place under a leaking faucet, it will soon fill up. Our trip started the filling of that bucket at the motherhouse.”
With over 500 man hours of labor, the men of “Project Hope” once again vowed to return, to rebuild the kitchen on the second floor, help in the installation of a hot water system, paint the more than twenty rooms and bathrooms and hopefully hand over the keys to officially welcome the sisters back to their home.
This trip is not about the deacons or the volunteers, yet many stories could be written on that aspect as well. Ten men altogether, each from their own parish said yes to a call to serve others in need, to get involved—for the Lord has no hands or voice, but our own. Before they even knew what the work would involve they called back with the message, “count me in.” Many gave up a week’s salary or vacation time and even donated money for tools, gas and other needed supplies. These men went to an uncharted area to help God’s community in need. They are all dedicated individuals and deserve your recognition. We especially praise our volunteers James Keith, John Klabacha and Joe Schuerman, and I am especially uplifted by my fellow deacons, Calvin Blickle, David Brothers, James Dieters, Al Lopez, and John Rottman. We were all very proud to work along side each other and share this project with Deacon Dwight Alexander; our New Orleans connection . Friendships were made that will last forever.
Along with labor, funds are still needed to make this welcome a reality. It is our mission to bring this congregation back to their home once again. A third trip is being prepared. Volunteers to help rebuild the commercial kitchen and paint the interior of the building are welcome. Contact the Carmelite Communication Center, at 630-971-0724 if you are interested in participating in any way. Contributions for this effort can be sent to: Hurricane Restoration, P.O. Box, 476, Lacombe, LA 70445-0476. Attn: Sister Elizabeth Fitzpatrick, O.Carm.