BY SHERBY MCGRATH
PAWLEYS ISLAND — A simple request for a prayer from a parish devastated by Hurricane Katrina brought thousands of dollars and three truckloads of donations to St. Thomas the Apostle Church in Long Beach, Miss.
Several days after Hurricane Katrina ripped through the coastal areas of Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, Les Cox, asked the pastor of Precious Blood of Christ Church to say a prayer for the victims of Katrina, especially those in St. Thomas the Apostle Parish in Long Beach, Miss.
Cox’s stepson and family had attended St. Thomas, and he had searched on the internet for photos of the area. All he saw from satellite photos was devastation.
Father Patrick J. Stenson’s reply to Cox was, “we can do better than that,” and he did. The priest and his parishioners at Precious Blood had been looking for a way to help people affected by Hurricane Katrina, so he quickly received permission from the Diocese of Charleston to adopt the Mississippi church.
Within hours the priest was on the phone with Father Louis Lohan, pastor of St. Thomas the Apostle, asking how Precious Blood could help. Father Lohan replied that parishioners didn’t need food or clothing, but desperately wanted to get the school and church functioning again. They needed school and office desks, supplies and liturgical items. The priest had celebrated his first Mass after Katrina for 3,000 people in a parking lot.
The church, parish hall, school and rectory of St. Thomas, which serves 1,500 families, were within sight of the Gulf of Mexico, located across a highway from the beach. Everything was destroyed by a storm surge Father Lohan estimated at 35 feet high. All that remains of the school is some red bricks scattered around the area. A few steel beams hold up pieces of the church’s walls, and, miraculously, a stained-glass window.
Precious Blood of Christ’s first gesture was to send $25,000 from its outreach funds to the Mississippi parish. Parishioner Simon Bula, who became the coordinator of Precious Blood’s relief efforts, put together a group of parish committee chairmen and others.
“After we got Father Louis’ needs list, we started reaching out to everyone we knew,” Bula said.
The response was immense. The following weekend during a special offering at the church’s three Masses, parishioners contributed over $25,000 to St. Thomas Parish, and donations are still coming in.
Young Families in Faith, a parish organization, provided about 100 school backpacks filled with supplies for the children. The church members gathered liturgical items, including an organ, a baptismal font, missals and vestments. It also donated a complete computer lab for the parish school.
Area businesses and educational institutions readily gave. On Oct. 5, Bula and five other men from the church drove three 26-foot rental trucks to Long Beach. Joining them as volunteers for the mission were two men who attend Pawleys Island Presbyterian and All Saints churches.
Inside the trucks were office desks, bookcases, credenzas and other furniture and equipment donated by Conway National Bank; student and office desks contributed by Coastal Carolina University; a telephone system from Plantation Federal Bank; textbooks offered by Georgetown County Department of Education; and the items collected by Precious Blood. Two of the church’s organizations, the Women’s Club and the Knights of Columbus, had donated funds for the trucks’ rental.
Customers and friends of Island Threads, a quilting store in Pawleys Island, provided over 100 handmade quilts. Right after the hurricane hit, shop owner and Precious Blood parishioner Emme Nichols sent an e-mail to all her customers around the country, telling them Island Threads would provide the space and necessary materials if the quilters would come in and make quilts.
Meanwhile, Father Lohan had been busy in Long Beach. The church’s Knights of Columbus council donated the insurance money it had received for the loss of its building, so he bought a skating rink. In 17 days, Seabees from the Gulfport Naval Station and volunteers from the church converted the building into eight classrooms, office space and a place of worship.
The eight men making the trip to Mississippi — Bula, Cox, Vince Civitarese, Roy Elmendorf, Bob Morin, Bob Pelletier, Brian Sholtis and Gabe Timpano — ranged in age from the early 50s to 82. They spent two days packing the three trucks, and two days making the long drive. It was an experience none of them will forget.
When they arrived in Mississippi, they spotted a banner hanging from a bridge. It read: ‘“Thanks y’all. We are proud. United we stand. [Signed] The State of Mississippi.”
Pelletier remembered that initial signs of storm damage became visible about 150 miles from Long Beach.
“Construction crews worked along the highways removing debris from fallen trees. There were still fallen power lines,” he said. The group also found that many truck stops didn’t have diesel fuel for the trucks, so the convoy had to make several stops to find the fuel necessary to keep going.
The impressions the men had of Long Beach and especially of the priest and parishioners of St. Thomas remain with them.
“I had asked Father Louis to get us a forklift,” Bula recalled, “and he’d said, ‘Where am I going to get a forklift?’ Yet, when we got there, there was a forklift whose driver had driven it 45 minutes on back roads to get to Long Beach. After we unloaded, he had to drive it 45 minutes back to his home and go to work.”
“In Long Beach, we had to go at least a half-mile from the beach before we saw any place where people could live. It looked like Blue Roof City,” said Pelletier.
“A woman with two children came up to me as we were unloading, and I mentioned we were getting ready to build a Parish Life Center at Precious Blood,” Elmendorf said. “The woman was amazed that we could build our Life Center and still help them. I told her we were a very generous parish.”
“At least four people told me it was important to them to know Precious Blood cared for their parish and responded to their needs,” Cox added.
Relief efforts for St. Thomas are continuing. Precious Blood is still receiving donations for the parish, and St. Michael Parish in Garden City has offered additional textbooks.
“We’ll rely on Father Louis to tell us their needs,” said Father Stenson. All the Long Beach priest has to do is pick up the phone and call.
Sherby McGrath is a parishioner at Precious Blood of Christ Church.