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Remembering Katrina: St. Paul's parishioners 'find their vision' with rector's help

By Ann M. Ball

ENS photo by Ann M. Ball
The choir of St. Paul's, New Orleans, recesses from a filled-to-capacity church on August 27, the congregation's first Sunday of worship back in their church building following Hurricane Katrina, almost one year since the tragedy.   (ENS photo by Ann M. Ball)

[ENS, NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana]  St. Paul's, New Orleans, lay dormant for weeks after Katrina's storm surge burst through the 17th Street Canal, dumping eight feet of Lake Pontchartrain into the church, its school and the new gymnasium. The first visitors inside the church saw a picture of desecration, with molding, upended pews, prayer books, and hymnals scattered in heaps at the sanctuary steps and a grimy water line coating the beautiful marble angel font, as mold crept up the stone walls of the nave.

The church and surrounding Lakeview area homes were so completely devastated -- along with the other 70 percent of New Orleans -- that the early months following the storm seemed hopeless. It was so daunting that the newly instituted rector of St. Paul's resigned.

But in early 2006, the picture became much brighter with the arrival of the Rev. Will Hood, who came to serve as interim rector. Initially, Hood said he "held parishioners' hands," to calm frayed nerves. Then he helped parishioners find their vision. He gave them the compass they needed to move in the right direction to begin the recovery of their church and school. But they didn't do it alone.

One year later on August 27, the congregation held its first Sunday worship in St. Paul's Church. Louisiana Bishop Charles Jenkins, Canon Chad Jones, and visiting Bishop Suffragan Nedi Rivera of Olympia joined Hood and the people of St. Paul's to celebrate their rebirth. More than 300 people filled every seat in the church and people stood along the aisles to be a part of the resurrection of their spiritual community.

The church acknowledged the outpouring of generosity to their parish with a booklet containing the names of churches, individuals, families, corporations and foundations that made contributions to St. Paul's. The congregation sat in pews given by St. Paul's Church, Indianapolis. Twenty Episcopal churches named for St. Paul, from Washington State to Vermont and from North Dakota to Texas, contributed to the restoration of the church.

"All of the churches in the Diocese of Olympia are with us today," Jenkins said at the time of announcements. Hood added that the prayer cards, which had been inserted into everyone's service leaflet, came from the Diocese of Olympia. Each had a handwritten prayer or message of love from a young person in that northwestern diocese.

Hood opened his sermon by singing the words to the old spiritual, "There is a balm in Gilead, to soothe the sin-sick soul. There is a balm in Gilead, to make the wounded whole."
He confessed that sometimes fear grips him. "That the neighborhood is going to be desolate," he said. "That the church is going to collapse. That we're going to die. But we are not people who live in fear. We are people who live in faith and hope."

"When we feel like we're drowning, we need to stop, drop and pray," he said. "As we go forward, I challenge you: fear less -- trust God's love. And share that love, grace and redemption. Then others will come to know God's love in this place."

At the close of the service, Hood invited St. Paul's school teachers forward, where they joined hands for a prayer and a blessing for the new school year. The students were able to return to St. Paul's campus for classes which began on August 24. The previous school year was held at a nearby Baptist church.

Following the service, the congregation moved to the gym, where punch and decorated cakes were served. The crowd lingered as old friends shared their stories and talked about the future of St. Paul's.