The Presses Are Rolling Again at Mt. Carmel Academy

By: Sal Lema

For thus says the Lord of Hosts the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land. -- Jeremiah 32:15.

It was a warm sunny morning on that Saturday in late January. The six of us, Joe Winblad, Rich Werner, Tony Cocco, Dan Troy, Chris Virruso and myself, all permanent deacons from the Archdiocese of Chicago, clad in bright red sweatshirts with the words “Chicago Deacon” and “Project Hope” loudly heralding our cause, gathered at the National Shrine of Saint Therese in Darien, Illinois, to receive a blessing and personal crosses as we began our journey to the City of New Orleans, Louisiana, and the work of rebuilding a vital link on the grounds of Mount Carmel Academy, in the hard hit Lakeview area.

With the first days work nearly complete, the deacons gathered around their make-shift dining table for dinner. More work could be accomplished by eating at the jobsite and returning to work, before exhaustion could set it.

The Very Reverend John Welch, O.Carm., Prior Provincial of the Province of the Most Pure Heart of Mary, presided at the 9:00 am Prayer Service that morning. All of us gathered around the altar as Father John prayed for us and blessed wooden crosses, each an exact duplicate of a cross given to us by Sister Beth Fitzpatrick, O.Carm., President of the Sisters of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. As we carried the sister’s cross back to her, we also carried our wooden crosses, for they represent a symbol of our faith, a symbol of our commitment, and a symbol of our Hope for the success of this project.

The picture on the front of November’s issue of the Carmelite Review said it all. The statue that sat on its pedestal in front of the Motherhouse of the Sisters of Our Lady of Mount Carmel showed the water lines that marked the slow drainage from the over ten foot of water that filled Lakeview. The orange spray painted “X” behind the statue, showing that the building, like almost every building in New Orleans, was searched, left its witness of the date of the search, the bodies that were discovered, and how many people and pets were still inside.

From left: Deacons, Rich Werner, Tony Cocco and Chris Virruso begin to assemble the ceiling grid system.

As I read that article by Sister Angele Sadlier, O.Carm., while sitting at my desk, I stared at the cross on the wall in front of me and wondered how I could help remove the gloom of orange paint and bring back the days of old. As a member of God’s community and more specifically a deacon in his charge, I could not sit idly by. While many are asked to give of their treasures, I wasn’t satisfied with only that offering, but wanted to add to it all of what God gave me, namely time and talent as well.

Once the spirit had moved me, I knew I wanted to help the sisters of Our Lady of Mount Carmel and their Hope to rebuild the girl’s academy.
Contacting Sister Beth, I arranged to visit the school to see what could be done. Deacon Joe Winblad, a deacon at Saint Patrick’s in Lemont, was the first to volunteer. At the young age of 71, Joe had already made one trip to La Bayou Labatre, in Alabama where he had worked through the Mennonite Disaster Relief Organization in its relief efforts. Together we visited the site and obtained valuable insights on what the project would encompass.

Our attention was drawn to the middle of the campus, between the classrooms, gymnasiums, and the performing arts center. There in the midst of those buildings stood two misshapen buildings a little worse for wear, one a two-story faculty house and the second a square, one story building. Both had been severely damaged by Katrina and were recently gutted and cleaned. It was that small building that the sisters had thought would be our target. Before Katrina, it housed a major communications artery of the school. The 36 by 36 foot brick building was the high school print shop, the lifeblood of all printed matter for both the school and the Order. The school buildings were the top priory on the campus so this facility had stood idly by. Now only the brick shell, roof and bare framed walls remained. Phil Hosen worked there. Phil was the printer that produced the schools excellent work year after year. The day before Katrina, he had just received 100,000 sheets of paper preparing for the year to come. For now, he was out of a job, but hoped that that day would come when he would work again. It was our quest to return this building to life, to get Phil back to his land, to unite him with the flipping of printed pages and the smell of ink. There was much to do for this artery to pump its communication materials again.

Sister Beth Fitzpatrick, O.Carm.
Sister Beth Fitzpatrick, O.Carm., pitches in with a little trowel work on the sheet rock.

So we began. Taking measurements and jotting down information about needed materials, the availability of power, wiring, a heating system and all sorts of items needed to bring this print shop back to life. We also discovered that all their tools had been ruined from the flood waters as well, and supplies in New Orleans were both rare and expensive, so the need to find a way to bring both supplies and tools would be a high priority.

Once home, we began our search. Through other deacons, friends, parishes and local businesses like George J. Roll and Sons, Sherwin Williams Paint and Yellow Freight we were able to acquire wallboard, plaster, screws, and other taping materials, plus paint, tools and over $10,000 in donations to purchase the drop ceiling, lights, insulation and other items necessary to complete the project. Yellow Freight pitched in with the cartage of almost 7,000 lbs of supplies from our drop off point in Blue Island, (a suburb southeast of Chicago) to the academy in New Orleans.

Our team was almost complete. The one missing factor was a competent carpenter to assist us novices in the rebuilding of this print shop facility. Contacting the diaconate in New Orleans we learned about Deacon Dwight Alexander. Dwight also was a victim of Katrina, losing his home, all his tools and three vehicles. Through some very generous deacons within our diocese, over a thousand dollars in tools were sent to him. He was to be our New Orleans connection. Dwight agreed to hire on for the project.
With the energy of our wooden crosses in hand, this band of deacons began the nine-hundred and sixty mile trip to the City of New Orleans, a city that had been brought to its knees, but would rise again.

…Give thanks to the Lord of Hosts, for the Lord is good; his mercy endures forever.” For I will restore this country as of old says the Lord. -- Jeremiah 33:11

Arriving by van and plane the six Chicago deacons met our newest friend, Deacon Dwight, late Sunday. We had arrived; soon it would be time begin the work that we were called to do.

A sheet rock panel weighing over fifty pounds is held in place as it is fastened to the rafters

Day One. After our first night’s sleep in a facility run by Catholic Charities, we arrived at the site early Monday morning. We had planned the entire week and the time-line was a vigorous one. But the first day proved that a catastrophe like Katrina slows normal things down to a crawl. It all started with the material arriving in mid-afternoon instead of the morning as initially planned. But the deacons would not be daunted; instead they worked well into the night rigging up lights in order to accomplish the day’s task. At the end of that first day, all the insulation and two walls of wallboard were in place. Hitting the sack by nine-thirty that evening, the moans and groans from this senior band of deacons wafted softly, cutting through the silence of the night. You see, at 56, I was the youngest of the lot. Our most senior deacon is 73.

Day Two began quite before dawn and ended after sunset. This day was perhaps the toughest of all as we installed and taped the remaining of our 71 sheets of drywall. All the walls were now complete, including the garage area.

Wednesday, Day Three, was the hump day, the third day of the project. This day met us with more challenges. The sheet metal men had installed the connecting ductwork on the furnace but left it in such a way that the furnace was not useable that night. With the temperature expected to drop down to 40 that evening, it was critical to keep the room heated, so that the mortar used to join the wallboard together could dry sufficiently before the final coat and sanding could begin on Thursday. Consequently the furnace had to remain on during the night. Thanks to the contactors that were working on the school building and were diligently monitoring our status, the furnace work was completed and the heat was restored before the evening cold set in.

Success! With the third coat of pain completed, the deacons officially hand over the keys of this print shop facility to Phil Gosen, the print shop manager (fourth from right), Sister Camille Anne Campbell, Principal (third from right) and Beth Ann Simno, Vice President of the Academy (fifth from right)

If that was not enough, as we left that evening for a night in Metairie (a suburb of New Orleans) with the sisters, we heard a weather forecast about severe rain that was to engulf the city that evening. Once again we prepared for the worst, nailing down plastic sheets across the openings where doors were still uninstalled.

Asleep that night, the crash of thunder woke us all as the high winds and torrents of rain swept across our bedroom windows. We witnessed the spectacle of bent over trees and prayed that the Lord would spare these good people from any more calamities. In the morning we timidly drove to our construction site in the hope that we could continue our project.

As we approached our building, we noticed flashing lights quite close to our work site. As we turned onto Robert E. Lee Blvd., the school that was now back in session was turning students away at the door. The power was out. We discovered to our surprise that the winds and rains the night before had produced a tornado which had hit a street nary a block from our site. Since the homes were still uninhabitable, no one was harmed. Even though the power was out, our contracting friends managed to get a diesel generator up and running in a short period of time. Despite all odds, we were working once again. This, the fourth day of our journey, became most critical for us. The sanding had to be completed on the walls, the drop ceiling grid had to be in place and the remaining doors had to be installed. We would save time by eating at the site on a make shift table, and taking very few breaks. The men proved that age was no factor for them, for there determination to succeed was the hand of God at work. By dusk, all was prepared for the final day.

Bright and early Friday morning we began our race for the home stretch. Today’s goal: put the drop ceiling and lights in place and place three coats of paint on all the walls—not too difficult for seasoned professionals but absolutely easy for these seven brothers who had withstood the stresses of the week and have joined forces as an experienced team. The job was completed and the site was prepared for its showing to Sister Camille Anne Campbell, the school principal; Beth Ann Simno, the school’s vice president, and Sister Elizabeth Fitzpatrick, president of the Order. We officially handed over the keys to the print shop. Our donations of talent, time, and treasure amounted to 260 man hours of time, generous donations of goods and services and monetary funds totaling of over $16,000 dollars of which donations in our name are still coming in. Once the carpeting was ordered and the print shop machinery found; it would only be a matter of time before the smell of ink filled these rooms once again.

“The noblest inspirations are worthless without good works.” --Saint Therese of Lisieux.

With happy hearts and tired bodies it was time to say farewell to New Orleans. At our meal that night we toasted to a job well done, to new-found friends, to the great sisters of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, to the students of the academy and to what can be achieved, when you have a little faith, a strong commitment and the presence of hope.

There is still much to be accomplished. The restoration of the print shop is only a small part of the campus. Over three million dollars in destruction had occurred. As you can imagine, insurance monies have been insufficient to complete the project. Any assistance you can give will be greatly appreciated. Contributions to help aid the sisters in their rebuilding can be sent to: Carmelite Sisters of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, P.O. Box 476, Lacombe, LA 70445-0476.

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