Growing up on the Gulf Coast, Father Wencil Pavlovsky, pastor of St. Paul the Apostle Church in Nassau Bay, Texas, was used to hurricanes. But Hurricane Harvey, which first hit the Houston area the evening of Friday, Aug. 25, was different, he said, both in duration and intensity. On Saturday night, he recalled, “We had four or five hours of horrendous thunder, lightning and blinding rain. It was quite an event, but thanks to the grace of God and the intercession of the Blessed Mother, we got through it.”
Damage to the buildings at St. Paul’s was modest, but many of its parishioners were not so lucky. “Some of our people barely escaped from their homes in chest-deep water,” Father Pavlosky said. “We had several rescued from their rooftops.”
Adjusting to a new normal
Flooding and related damage to parishes and other properties of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston have been mild to severe, according to Matthew Johns, who works with disaster operations for Catholic Charities in the archdiocese. Catholic Charities is joining with the Society of St. Vincent de Paul to help victims with immediate needs — food, shelter, clothing, items for small children — in the short term and, in the coming months, to help them return to their homes and rebuild.
“We have to help them adjust to a new normal, and help them to understand that life may never be going back to the way it was before the hurricane, especially if they’ve lost a loved one,” Johns said.
Among its other activities, Catholic Charities was dispatching counselors to help victims deal with the grief of the loss of a home or, for some, the loss of a loved one, Johns said.
Johns helped staff an emergency call center during the hours when the storm was at its most intense, and he recalled how the call system was overwhelmed by frightened residents with water pouring into their homes asking what to do. “I told them to focus on saving their lives,” Johns said. “Get to the highest point possible and await rescue.”
He worried about his own family’s safety during the ordeal. “It was a shock. We didn’t expect it to be that bad.”
Johns estimates that at least 20 parishes sustained significant damage. St. Ignatius of Loyola Church in Spring, Texas, was among the hardest hit, with its five buildings flooded with as much as 3 feet of water, said the parish’s pastor, Father Norbert Maduzia. The electrical and sound systems in the church were damaged, as well as the pews. Water covered the sanctuary steps and platform. The spirituality center had nearly 4 feet of water. When Father Maduzia first entered, he saw a refrigerator floating down the hallway.
“It was just unbelievable and devastating to see,” said Father Maduzia, who said he expects the repair bill to the facilities to be in the millions of dollars.
The Shrine of the True Cross in Dickinson, Texas, was another parish hit particularly hard, with its church, school and parish office flooded with 4 feet or more of water and the electricity off for days. Its pastor, Father Larry Wilson, had to flee the church grounds. He took with him a relic from which the parish gets its name and escaped via boat. He spent the night at City Hall before being taken in by parishioners. Father Wilson said that when he went from the parish office to the sidewalk to meet his rescue boat, “the water was up to my neck; when I stepped off the sidewalk, it was over my head.”
Father Howard Drabek of St. Mary Parish in League City, Texas, woke up just after midnight on Sunday to discover that power was out in his parish and that rainwater was coming through the roof down the columns of the church. He walked outside to its rear, where a statue of Jesus stands on a 4-foot pedestal. The pedestal was completely covered so that Jesus’ feet touched the water. “I saw Jesus walking on water,” he mused.
St. Mary’s plot of land is higher than the surrounding town and was spared much of the flooding that encompassed the rest of the community. About half of Father Drabek’s staff, however, had their homes flooded, and many had to be evacuated out of the area. Some parishioners brought others into their homes, saving them evacuation to Dallas.
Father Vincent Vuong-Quoc Nguyen, pastor of Houston’s St. Clare of Assisi Church, also reported that while his parish was spared the worst of the damage, many on his staff were not. Catholic schools and other facilities also have experienced significant flooding. Some of the hardest hit schools were closed through Labor Day.
Johns said that the most urgent needs in the archdiocese include financial donations for rebuilding. To donate, visit archgh.org/harveyrelief. Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo, archbishop of Galveston-Houston, has requested prayers from the faithful.
“In solidarity with my brother bishops in this area of the country, I call on people of faith to pray for all of those who have been impacted by this hurricane, and I ask people of goodwill to stand with the victims and their families,” Cardinal DiNardo said.
Father Wilson noted that Cardinal DiNardo has been on the phone with him daily, offering him words of comfort and advice. He gets choked up when he thinks of the kindness he’s received. “I have been touched by the love and dedication of the people in this city. Everyone is trying to lift one another up. It’s been an amazing thing to watch.”
“The Catholic community has been outstanding in its support of hurricane victims,” Johns said. “I don’t know how long the recovery will take, but I think it will be a few years before we get back on our feet.”
Father Pavlovsky stressed the important role faith will play in the recovery, noting that he himself had been on retreat in July and that, “the peace and serenity I experienced there has been getting me through this.”
Father Drabek noted that trillions of gallons of water fell on the Houston area during the storm, with each gallon comprised of many drops of water, each causing destruction. However, “the drops of faith of each of our people will combine to create a force that will enable us to recover and rebuild from this tragedy.”
Help from volunteers
In addition to archdiocesan-wide efforts to help hurricane victims, individuals and parishes have volunteered to help as well. St. Maximilian Kolbe, a parish on the northwest side of Houston, is operating a rescue shelter for hundreds flooded out of their homes, said Deacon Matt Rust. It has been designated an official Red Cross shelter, he said, with one of the parish buildings converted into a kitchen and another converted into a dormitory.
Residents streamed into the parish once the storm began, and “we don’t know how long it’s going to go on, but we think it will be a long-term event.”
As the waters recede from area roads, making them safe for travel, Mary Queen Catholic Church in Friendswood, Texas, will be a distribution site for food and supplies to clean up from the storm, said Deacon Paul Robison. Mary Queen also suffered significant damage; its retreat center took on 2 feet of water.
Father Pavlovsky said that his various parish ministries have begun the conversation as to what the parish can do to best respond. Father Nguyen said his parish organizations were mobilizing to help as well. St. Mary’s parishioners have already cleaned up the water in their church.
Father Drabek reported that one of his parishioners with a boat went to rescue another, but along the way encountered “many people begging to be rescued.” Hence, what began as a short trip to rescue one turned into a 12-hour rescue of many.
Father Maduzia noted that his parishioners are “bucking horses in the shoots waiting to be released.” They’ve begun pumping water out of the buildings and have organized a disaster preparedness committee to determine what the next steps for repair and recovery should be. Additionally, a parish storm-relief committee is working to help people in the community in need, from food to clean-up and even boat rescues of stranded parishioners.
They’re not neglecting the spiritual, either; Father Maduzia has called his parishioners to prayer, asking each family to pray the Rosary daily at noon and the Chaplet of Divine Mercy at 3 p.m.
“People continue to pray and have said that it gives them a sense of peace and calmness — especially those families with children,” he said.
Jim Graves writes from California.