What is C’est si bon (translation: It’s so good)? Is it a popular song recorded by Eartha Kitt? Is it the name of a restaurant on St. Charles Street? Is it a positive spirit to be found in New Orleans among those committed to rebuilding a severely damaged city? The answer is: all of the above.
Signs throughout the city bravely declare, “We’ll be back.” Meanwhile the presence of Dominican friars in Louisiana continues as it has since 1911 and now, two years after Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath of flood, the men seem truly undaunted by the monumental challenges that still lie ahead.
The Southern Province has its Provincial office in Metairie. The building sustained wind damage, but did not flood. Fr. Emiliano Zapata, OP, Socius and Vicar Provincial, shared that there are currently 19 friars living and ministering in the city. They live in two priories and lead two parishes: St. Anthony of Padua on Canal Street in Mid-City and St. Dominic in the Lakeview district. The parish buildings, including the schools, belong to the Archdiocese of New Orleans, and were woefully underinsured for the water damage they sustained.
We caught up with Bro. Herman Johnson between classes at Xavier University, an institution that is Catholic and historically serves the Black student body. With its purpose to promote a more just and humane society, Xavier prepares its students to assume roles of leadership and service in society.
Bro. Herman, professor of Spanish in the Modern Languages Department, is a native New Orleanian who elected to remain in the city and assist his neighbors: 33 sick and elderly people who were trapped in their homes. As was reported by Claudia McDonnell of Catholic New York in October 2005, Bro. Herman recalled that “Many of them were lying in bed when we rescued them. The mattresses were already floating. After we swam to them, we would walk in the water, dragging the mattress. We floated them to our house.”
For a time, Bro. Herman, like so many others, had to learn to cope without many of the things most of us take for granted: a clean, safe place to live, a regular job, a sense of normalcy. “But,” he said, “it’s helping me to deepen my prayer life, to come to know who I am as I am, [apart from] the externals that humans use to define themselves.”
Bro. Herman is thrilled that Xavier University was reopened as of January 2005 and hopes the school will be able to regain the students and teachers who were forced to leave and have not been able to return. “I wanted to return to continue our 75 plus year tradition of Dominicans at Xavier.”
“I’m hopeful that we’ll again be a great city and a great university, but it will take time. The city was racked with social ills before Katrina. Racism is a perennial problem in New Orleans. In rebuilding the city it won’t work to ignore the poor.”
We asked Bro. Herman what he would wish for if guaranteed that he could be granted three. He told us he prays that the inner city parishes and schools that were closed will be reopened, that there will be more assistance for Xavier University students, 90% of whom rely on financial aid, and that the priory will be restored so that he can return there to live with his brothers.
As he left us to administer a test to his class downstairs, he assured us, “Every day I do see grace to do things in a new way.”
A trip to St. Dominic Parish meant a sobering ride through Lakeview which was flooded when several wall panels of the 17th Street Canal levee failed. What was once a lovely middle-class neighborhood of 12,500 households now looks like a war zone. Some lots have been scraped clean, some homes have been gutted, some are being rebuilt, but many more stand, badly damaged, rotting and abandoned.
We were fortunate to find Fr. Paul Watkins, OP, in the trailer being used as the parish office at St. Dominic, and he generously took time to show us the priory and the church. “We had 3,600 families here before Katrina; now we have 1,200,” he told us. He showed us the windowless second-floor stairwell where the Prior Provincial, Marty Gleeson, OP and a friar, Chrys Finn, OP, had taken shelter, set up an altar and prayed before being rescued by boat.
Fr. Paul smiled as he showed us the work that is being done to restore the priory where eight to ten feet of water flooded the first floor. He was still smiling as he outlined the massive cleanup that had to be done in the church, and the plans for new lighting and new pews. The parishioners make do for now with folding metal chairs. It was beginning to occur to us that smiling is what one does in this phase of the recovery of New Orleans, because what is the alternative? If one had any doubt, one only needed to see the children on the playground at the school to recall that they count on having their lives rebuilt.
Next we drove across town to St. Anthony Priory, where we came upon Fr. Charles Latour, OP, busily overseeing the restoration of the three-story, 80-year-old building. “It’s a great day,” he told us, “because today the friars’ mattresses were delivered. No furniture yet, but the mattresses arrived!” When the three story building is ready, the 11 friars assigned to St. Anthony will be able to live in community once again; for now they meet for evening meals and three friars live in a rented house nearby.
The pastor, Fr. Ian Bordenave, OP, waved as he came from one meeting on his way to another and expressed his regret that he couldn’t stop to chat. While the school was flooded, the church was not, and only about 60 families have not returned since Katrina.
At the end of the day, we were tired. It wasn’t that the day had been physically taxing, but because we had seen and heard so much that expressed fear, confusion, loss, sadness and frustration. But at the same time, we had witnessed many signs of hope. The friars of the Southern Province we met are sincerely energized by the work before them. In fact, they see it as an opportunity to preach the Word of faith in God, even in the midst of a massive and slow recovery from one of this country’s worst natural disasters.
Story Contributors: Al Judy, OP (St. Albert), Donna Brunnell, OP (Hope), Kate Martin (San Rafael), Lucy Sanchez (St. Albert), and Isabelle Williamson (St. Martin)