“Well, what do you think?” Father Doug Doussan asked audience members Jan. 18 after an evening performance of “Living Water,” a play written about St. Gabriel the Archangel Parish’s resurrection after Hurricane Katrina.
Audience members rose and applauded. “It really was death and resurrection wasn’t it?” Father Doussan, St. Gabriel’s pastor, said. “That’s what we’ve been through. What a grace. Amen.”
The indomitable spirit and determination of Father Doussan and pastoral associate Sister of St. Joseph Kathleen Pittman – to ensure that St. Gabriel reopened after Katrina – were front and center in the play, a production of the Still Point Theatre Collective.
The duo, portrayed by actors Andy Clifton (Father Doussan) and co-writer Lisa Wagner-Carollo (Sister Kathleen), demonstrated how St. Gabriel fought to reopen, even without insurance money and having to raise money to rebuild. Through the experience, parishioners learned that material possessions were not important. What was valuable was having friends, family and faith.
“We lost everything but we feel so blessed” was the common phrase heard most by Father Doussan and Sister Kathleen.
“That’s how we feel at St. Gabriel,” Father Doussan said. “Because of God’s providence and love, we feel so blessed. We’ve risen from the dead.”
Actor Nicole Michelle Haskins, portraying multiple roles including an amalgamation of a parishioner named Marigold Hardesty, said, “God is the only one who could carry me over the hills I crossed.”
Writing about real lives
“It’s been an amazing journey and very humbling in a number of ways,” Wagner-Carollo said.
More than 20 interviews were conducted, resulting in 20-30 hours of recordings from which to draw the material for the play.
From the interviews, the duo zeroed in on the lives of a few parishioners of different ages and experiences in the parish to illustrate the collective Katrina experience and how St. Gabriel was the place everyone turned to for strength and solace.
“I was completely overwhelmed,” co-writer Anita Dacanay said. “Over time, taking it in, we saw certain themes coming in over and over again.”
By May 2013, an outline for the play had been developed. What was performed Jan. 18 at St. Gabriel Church was the 17th version. The play includes the history of the parish through segregation in the 1960s, the rise of social justice ministries in the 1990s, the parish’s status before Katrina as seen through the eyes of several parishioners and the challenges they had to overcome after Katrina – including the initial doubts of Father Doussan and Sister Kathleen that the parish or city could return.
St. Gabriel had 6 feet of water in the church and 8 feet in the surrounding neighborhood.
“Is this realistic? Do we know what we are doing?” Wagner-Carollo, as Sister Kathleen, asks in the play. “We didn’t encourage people to come back because we didn’t know if New Orleans was going to come back.”
Ultimately, Sister Kathleen told Father Doussan that they should mimic her order of St. Joseph sisters who were founded amid tough conditions. She was going to see the parish through its resurrection even if the church was destroyed. Sister Kathleen is shown compiling email lists and hurricane letters to the 250 families scattered throughout 25 states. When the first Mass was celebrated only three months after Katrina, her character said more than 300 parishioners attended. They re-enacted a Mass scene where the church walls were blessed.
“St. Gabriel was a beacon of hope and life for the community around here,” one of the characters said. The restored church was rededicated in 2009. Credit for the parish reopening and the neighborhood returning, they said, goes to tenacity, the free labor of volunteers nationwide and Catholic Charities’ Helping Hands program.
“This building is a sign of who we are – the body of Christ, the church,” said Clifton, portraying Father Doussan in the play.
Real life reactions
Parishioner Barbara Hornsby, who insisted that her newborn son Dominic be baptized at St. Gabriel, was portrayed in the play and came to the performance.
“I was moved,” she said. “It brought me back to that day.” A painting was created with Father Doussan holding Dominic after the baptism.
Parishioner Margaret Adams expressed parishioners’ delight with the production.
“I want to thank you all for considering our experience,” Adams said, “A lot of us felt no one really understood what we went through. … To think ya’ll thought us worthy of your effort really makes me happy.”
“It was good. They had me down pat,” parishioner Marigold Hardesty said.
“I’m grateful to her and them wanting to do it,” Sister Kathleen said. “The first time I read (the script) it was like (Katrina) just happened. It wasn’t just my story; there were many who experienced the same thing. I don’t think stories like this get old. There are many stories about how God has blessed us in many ways. We have been resurrected in many ways. Something like this reminds us of that.”
Playwrights gained from experience
Dacanay said she felt privileged that families allowed them to write the script about their lives. The script writing was challenging, considering that Dacanay lived in Cleveland and Wagner-Carollo and Still Point were in Chicago. Over the summer of 2013, the two along with director Virginia Smith and set/costume designer Holly Windingstad met for a read-through and rewrites. Actors were not encouraged to “impersonate” the real people but to capture their spirit.
“It has enriched our lives and gives us the possibility of sharing that enrichment by touring this production,” she said. “It is a gift you have given us.”
Still Point Theatre Collective was founded more than 20 year ago by Wagner-Carollo. Through a chance meeting with Father Doussan in 2006 at the National Education for Continuing Education for Catholic Clergy conference, she learned about St. Gabriel Parish and offered to travel to New Orleans to perform a one-woman play, “Haunted by God: The Life of Dorothy Day,” as a gift to the parish. From there, she gained friendships with parishioners and was so “taken up with the parish and its reconstruction” that she decided their story was one worth telling, since everyone has struggles and this illustrated how they can be overcome.
Still Point has performed “Living Water: The Story of St. Gabriel the Archangel Church” about seven times in Chicago and Wisconsin and organized benefits to fund the production. It was different to perform it in New Orleans, Wagner-Carollo said. It has been wonderfully received everywhere and left audiences with a message of hope.
“Tonight, I will count in my peak experiences,” Wagner-Carollo said, about the 2 ½-year journey. “It’s the mountaintop.”
Wagner-Carollo hopes to tour the play overseas. The long-term goal is to expand the idea into a book to share other parishioners’ Katrina experiences, Dacanay said.
“Our heart’s desire is to honor the story of every person we talked to, to honor your collective story,” Dacanay said.
Christine Bordelon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.