St. Bernard Manor rebirth: The road out, the road in

    You’ve heard the excuse before: “The check is in the mail.”
    This time, the letter was almost in the mail, but Norbert Billiot, an operating engineer for the Lake Borgne Levee District in St. Bernard Parish, had a few other things on his mind.
    The Saturday morning before Hurricane Katrina turned Billiot’s life upside down in 2005, the Archdiocese of New Orleans had decided on the 20 men they would invite to begin the four-year formation process to become permanent deacons.
    Somehow – imagine that – the letters never were mailed.
    “Six months later, they contacted us again to see if we were still interested in seeing if we were being called,” Billiot said.
    By then, Billiot had seen just about everything. As an essential parish employee, Billiot made sure his wife Carol and his daughter had evacuated to safety before the storm, but his job was to stay and make sure the pumps kept running.
    It didn’t work out that way.
    “It was pretty bad,” Billiot said. “We had to go days without food. We were on the water scooping things up like floating potato chip bags to eat.”
    His cherished memory is breaking through the burglar bars on the windows of a home on Colonial Boulevard in Violet, where he saw an 87-year-old man, his wife and their developmentally challenged daughter with their noses pressed up against the top of the window.
    “They were standing on the headboard of the bed, just hanging on,” Billiot said.
    There were other things he saw during those days that he will never forget and doesn’t like to talk about. The water was full of death. The trees were full of horses and dogs.
    “We slept in a flat boat for three days, and you could shine the flashlight on the water, which was over the levees, and you could see all those alligator eyes, like little red dots,” Billiot said. “I imagine they were just as worried as we were getting to safety. You had to make sure you kept your arms inside the boat. You can’t forget that.”
    After about a week, staggered by hunger, Billiot and five of his coworkers, one of whom had open-heart surgery three weeks earlier, had to get out. They pointed their boat west and got to Golden Drive in Chalmette. They swam and walked in chest-high water the rest of the way to Paris Road.
    So when the archdiocese contacted Billiot again about discerning the possibility of the diaconate, he was ready.
    “I saw all the miracles that had happened to get out of St. Bernard Parish, and that’s what got me,” said Billiot, who was ordained with nine other men from the original class in 2010. “God was calling me, and he helped me.”
    And now, Deacon Billiot has found his way back into St. Bernard Parish.
    In addition to his ministerial role as a deacon at St. Bernard Church, Deacon Billiot is the manager of Christopher Homes’ new St. Bernard Manor, beautifully rebuilt with FEMA funds on the original spot of the original senior facility. It was officially blessed last week by Archbishop Gregory Aymond.
    Of the 82 new independent-living apartments, 63 are occupied already, and more moving vans arrive every day. Most of the residents are St. Bernard Parish natives.
    “They are just so happy to be back home and back in the parish,” Deacon Billiot said. “St. Bernard is family. No matter who you are in St. Bernard, you’re related to somebody or know somebody.”
    Shelia Couture, 75, lived in the original St. Bernard Manor before it was destroyed by the floodwaters. She lost every family picture, but she said, “I wasn’t the only one who lost everything. I just put it in God’s hands, and he helped me through everything.”
    Elba Jacob, 75, lost her home in Chalmette but was able to return there a few weeks after the storm and pry from the mud two figurines – porcelain angels – and a crucifix that had been placed on her husband’s casket when he died in 1986.
    “It means the world to me to be back here,” Jacob said. “Now I feel stable – like I’m settled again.
    She has placed the porcelain angels on the shelf above the TV. They are never out of sight.
    “I always had that feeling that I was going to come back,” Jacob said. “This place is remarkable. You see the smiles on the faces of the Deacon and John the maintenance man – it just lights up this whole place.”
    For Deacon Billiot, the way out of St. Bernard Parish and the way back in have had special purpose in his life.
    “I feel like God gave me this, and I’m sure he’s going to see me through, no matter what goes on,” he said. “He’s with me every step of the way.”
    Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at

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