African-American parishes, university need assistance in hurricane recovery

GREENVILLE — After visiting New Orleans, Kathleen Merritt, director of the Office of Ethnic Ministries for the Diocese of Charleston, told The Catholic Miscellany that the needs of the hurricane victims in Louisiana and Mississippi are still great.

Merritt was one of 31 members of the National Black Catholic Congress who visited sites of historical significance for African-Americans April 18-20. Valerie Washington, executive director of the congress, coordinated the visit to show the financial, mental and spiritual impact of hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

“We saw little activity on removal of much of the debris and abandoned cars in the city,” Merritt wrote in a paper for the NBCC. She said that Auxiliary Bishop Roger P. Morin of the Archdiocese of New Orleans spent time with the delegation and explained the many challenges they are facing in the recovery process.

“The future of some of our traditional African-American parishes is uncertain,” Merritt said. “Some diocesan decisions being made on which parishes will remain open and which will be consolidated or closed are being based on a pastoral plan developed prior to the storm. The question now remains: will this pre-Katrina plan adequately meet the evangelization needs of the African-American Catholic community post-Katrina?”

Another concern that was presented to the group was the future of Xavier University, the first and only black Catholic university in the United States. It was founded by St. Katharine Drexel. Merritt said the university’s president, Norman Francis, told their group that he has not received much financial support for rebuilding from the community.

“After much debate with the insurance companies, the university is open and educating future leaders,” Merritt said. “Still, there is not enough money to cover all the damage from the storm. A chapel is greatly needed. Many of our traditional African-American parishes, although damaged, are still gorgeous and culturally unique in Afrocentric style. We saw magnificent murals of Jesus, beautiful statues of African-American saints and altars sculpted from trees.  Somehow this storm that took lives, broke huge trees and crushed buildings left almost all of our religious statues, in the areas we visited, untouched.”

While on their tour, the NBCC representatives worked on a service project for the Sisters of the Holy Family Motherhouse in New Orleans. Merritt said it is the oldest continuously operated Catholic home for the aged in the United States.

“The sisters are an African-American congregation founded by a free woman of African descent, Henriette Delille, some 20 years before the Emancipation Proclamation,” Merritt said. “During our visit, the home was empty and the sisters were living in trailers.”

The group also met with Bishop Thomas Rodi of the Diocese of Biloxi, Miss. Merritt said that a major difference in the recovery process between the Diocese of Biloxi and the Archdiocese of New Orleans was that many of the residents are still in Biloxi and able to assist in rebuilding.

“With insurance paying for approximately 50 percent  of actual damage in the diocese, Bishop Rodi has a comprehensive long-term recovery plan that is being implemented,” she said. “Volunteer efforts play a huge part in the success of the plan.”

Much work is yet to be done, and it will take a lot of time and money to accomplish it all, Merritt said.

“African-Americans need to play a better role in assisting our brothers and sisters with recovery efforts in the Gulf coast,” she said.

She urged anyone interested in helping with recovery efforts to visit the Ethnic Ministries page on the diocesan Web site,