Riding down Chef Menteur Highway Feb. 10 seemed eerily familiar: Downed power lines, blue tarps on roofs, rubble that was once houses and businesses. Only it wasn’t remnants of Hurricane Katrina that hit this neighborhood in 2005. It was an EF3-rated tornado, according to the National Weather service, that hit Feb. 7, damaging approximately 300 homes and injuring 33 people within minutes, leaving multiple families homeless.
In the midst of all the destruction sat Deacon Allen Stevens’ home off Chef Menteur and Wright Road, wrecked a second time in 11 ½ years.
Yet, he didn’t feel alone. Approximately 15 seminarians from Notre Dame Seminary and its rector, Father Jim Wehner, descended on his block for clean-up work.
Days before, Deacon Stevens’ local diaconate community had boarded up blown-out windows, covered his roof with a tarp and paid for him and his wife, Edith, to stay at a hotel. His St. Peter Claver Parish family, where he is a deacon and pastoral associate and Edith is a teacher, also helped with clean up and prepared meals.
“If it wasn’t by God’s grace and mercy, I would be depressed; I don’t know where I would be,” Deacon Stevens said. “Because I know that I am in God’s presence, that’s why constantly people are coming. … I am just overwhelmingly surprised by the amount of people.”
Sharing the help
After Father Wehner said a prayer with the seminarians at the Stevens’ home, Deacon Stevens quickly directed them to other tornado-hit homes in the neighborhood.
“I realize how important it is to reach out and help your neighbor,” Deacon Stevens said. “I’m glad we (deacons) were able to do it so many times in Baton Rouge and LaPlace (due to the floods). … Now, it’s a joy to be able to say, “They came in to help me. … It helps you keep your spirits up.”
Stevens and the seminarians walked to nearby Wright Road at Old Spanish Trail where Paulette Duplessis, a secretary at St. Mary of the Angels Church, her husband Larry and their son Jeoffre, director of the music ministry at St. Mary of the Angels, a musician at St. Joseph the Worker and with the Archdiocesan Mass Choir, have lived for 25 years. The left side second-story of their home was completely blown out by the tornado.
Larry Duplessis was at home when the storm hit. Paulette said she had called him moments before to warn him to get in a bathroom. As he descended the stairs to open the front door, he was sucked outside, gripping an iron front door gate for survival. He desribed his feet flapping in the air like a flag in the wind.
“I’m taking the last step to the bathroom by the front door, and that thing hit that door, knocked the door open and it hit my leg and hurt it bad,” Duplessis said. “I’m bleeding and it’s sucking me sideways to the porch, and I grabbed the railing. It had me in the air, and I was holding on to the iron gate. It lasted a few seconds, and then it dropped me on the porch…. I have never in my life saw or felt anything like that. I was in the middle of it. I wasn’t afraid, I wasn’t scared. God saved my life. I had gripped on that iron like I never thought I can do.
“You might take my body, but my hands are still going to hold on to that gate. I didn’t get afraid. It was something to see.”
Franciscan Father Dennis Bosse went home with Paulette Duplessis to find Larry sitting on the front porch steps.
Both Deacon Allen and the Duplessises have been told that their houses are not stable and uninhabitable until repaired. The Duplessis family is weighing its options on rebuilding but thankful their lives were spared.
“God was with us,” Paulette Duplessis said. “God is keeping this family together.”
Outreach part of ministry
As Father Wehner walked door to door with seminarians viewing the destruction on King Richard Drive, he was consoling residents and inquiring how seminarians could assist.
“The suffering of Jesus Christ is joined to their suffering in that moment, and the presence of the church, through everyone who wants to be a part of this moment, hopefully can bring consolation to people,” Father Wehner said. “We hope people don’t feel alone in their suffering. The church is with them, the Lord is with them.”
He said the recent tragedies – flooding in Baton Rouge and now the tornado – help seminarians understand how to “suffer with someone,” to be with them and lend a helping hand. While they learn suffering abroad on the Acompaño mission trip to Nicaragua, but he said it’s important for them to recognize the needs “at your back door.”
“Not just in extraordinary circumstances like this type of devastation, but day in and day out, the suffering that is in our neighborhoods. Sometimes we’re blind to it, and it takes a tornado to open our eyes to see the levels of suffering every single day.”
Father Wehner found the quick pace of seminarians mobilizing in response to the tragedies amazing.
“Certainly, it’s been with my blessing, encouragement and the leadership of the faculty, but it’s been the seminarians saying ‘What can we do, where do we go, how do we do it?’ It speaks to the encouragement of what we are going to see in our priests today and our future priests – their motivation.”
Neighbors will return
“I’m thankful for surviving this,” Colleen Rondeno, a neighbor of Deacon Stevens, who is a Law Street Missionary Baptist Church member and was home during the tornado. Damage to her home included the roof peeling off her dining room and her electrical box blown from the home where she has lived since 1985. She rebuilt in 2009 after Katrina’s damage and vowed to return again.
“I know I am not as bad off as my neighbors across the street,” Rondeno said. “I am not in the worst situation. I trust God. That’s my way dealing with this. I’ll be all right.”
Deacon Stevens said he has no choice but to rebuild. His Catholic faith keeps him going and directs him to help others.
“That’s what we are supposed to do, right? Help one another,” he said. “We have to share God’s blessing … Even though we may be struggling and suffering and feeling bad about it, we have to continue to help our brothers and sisters. I believe this is happening for a reason. It seems like, even with my health situation there have been a lot of negatives since 2004 – cancer, tumor on the brain, Katrina, Rita … this tornado. God has brought us a mighty long way and he has not abandoned us.”
Christine Bordelon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.