August 28, 2015 — Ten years ago, on August 29, 2005, New Orleans experienced one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history when Hurricane Katrina struck. While New Orleans escaped a direct hit, the levee system catastrophically failed, leaving 80 percent of the city underwater. Katrina directly impacted all of the city’s Jesuit ministries, but just a decade later, they are all thriving today.
“We give thanks that 10 years after the storm and the flood, all of the sponsored and affiliated Jesuit works in New Orleans have recovered and in some cases have even thrived. We know that this would not have been possible without the strength and determination of the Jesuits and lay colleagues who led those ministries, and the prayers and extraordinary generosity of the Ignatian family who supported them in the days and years after the storm,” wrote Jesuit Father Ronald Mercier, provincial of the Central and Southern Province, in a letter reflecting on the 10th anniversary of Katrina.
There has been a strong Jesuit presence in New Orleans from the days of the city’s founding over 300 years ago, which today includes Jesuit High School, Loyola University New Orleans and Immaculate Conception Parish. Ministries such as the Good Shepherd Nativity School, which provides a tuition-free education to low-income youth, and the Harry Tompson Center, a day shelter for the city’s homeless, serve the disadvantaged.
When Katrina struck, the more than 60 Jesuits in New Orleans left their communities and headed to the novitiate and retreat house in Grand Coteau, Louisiana, about 140 miles west of New Orleans, where the old province offices lay submerged in filthy water. Together with province staff, they began assessing the severity of the situation and creating plans of action. “The immediate focus was getting current ministries back on their feet,” recalled Jesuit Father Fred Kammer, then provincial of the New Orleans Province.
Jesuit High School of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
While Loyola’s campus escaped major damage, it closed for the fall semester and hundreds of its students were taken in by other Jesuit colleges and universities, in addition to Spring Hill. Jesuit High School of New Orleans did flood, and many Jesuit high schools offered to enroll and house the students.
The Jesuit schools across the country that took in students displaced from Jesuit High and Loyola University for the fall 2005 semester often did so “without asking for credentials, grades or even tuition,” according to Fr. Mercier.
Despite the devastation, there was no doubt the Jesuits would help rebuild the city of New Orleans. But rebuilding physical structures was only one part of the recovery effort. “We needed to bring people back to normal as quickly as possible,” recalled Jesuit Father Anthony McGinn, who was president of Jesuit High at the time and currently serves as interim president. “The Jesuits felt a tremendous sense of urgency and responsibility to return to the city to continue the work so the people we serve could themselves return.”
Jesuit High’s first floor needed gutting and complete renovations after four and a half feet of water destroyed the auditorium, cafeteria, gymnasium, spirit shop and classrooms. By January 2006, 89 percent of students were back on campus.
Loyola University also reopened for the spring semester in January 2006. Despite the displacement of the entire student body during the fall semester, 91 percent of its undergraduate students returned, and Loyola was the first New Orleans college to hold a commencement ceremony post-Katrina.
The Jesuits did not rebuild alone; many members of the Ignatian family contributed to the effort. “The numbers are amazing: 22 Jesuit colleges and universities and 26 Jesuit secondary schools came to the area 125 times,” wrote Fr. Mercier. “In just 30 months, these students, as well as Jesuit Volunteers, men in formation and other members of the Ignatian family gutted 240 homes, helped rebuild 140 homes, and provided 132,669 hours of labor.”
One example of a dedicated Ignatian volunteer is Patrick Boyland, a 2007 alumnus of Georgetown Preparatory School in North Bethesda, Maryland. In 2006, he took part in his school’s service trip to volunteer with New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity to help rebuild. He has returned to the city each year since, joining Georgetown Prep students as an alumnus and chaperone in the years since he graduated.
A group of Georgetown Prep volunteers in New Orleans. (Patrick Boyland)
On his first trip, it had been less than a year since the storm. Damage to the streets left large potholes and almost all of the street signs were missing. “A lot of what I saw the very first year has stuck with me to this day,” he said.
“Now when I come back, I see a whole new city. Rebuilt and bustling again. It is encouraging and shows how much progress has been made over the past 10 years. … There are new sidewalks all throughout the Lower Ninth, and there are new schools everywhere. These are great symbols of progress that have been made over the years, and it shows that this isn’t an impossible task.”
On the tenth anniversary, the Jesuits of the Central and Southern Province celebrate their recovery in the city, while also focusing on those who were not able to rebuild. “Amid this celebration we also need to listen the voices of those who have been left behind in the recovery — people like the families of Good Shepherd students who were never able to move back to New Orleans, or the homeless people who come to the Harry Tompson Center every day because they have never psychologically recovered from the storm, or the immigrants seen by Loyola’s Law Clinic who came to New Orleans to rebuild residents’ homes but cannot claim the city as a home even after having lived there 10 years,” wrote Fr. Mercier.
“On this anniversary we offer petitions of gratitude for the prayers and generosity of the people who made recovery possible for our works in the Gulf South. Let us also join in prayers of solidarity for those people and communities who still wait for hope, healing and homecoming.” [Sources: Central and Southern Province, NJN, New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity]
Jesuit Brother Larry Huck, president of Good Shepherd School in New Orleans, with students, who receive a tuition-free education.