The entire five-parish region of the Diocese of Lake Charles was impacted by Hurricane Laura’s brutal wrath of destruction as the Category 4 storm made landfall along the Gulf Coast in the early morning hours of August 27. But through it all, Bishop Glen John Provost never left the diocese.
Churches and rectories are destroyed. Nearly one third of priests in active ministry are displaced. Only one of the six Catholic schools can open immediately. All three homes for the Nigerian nuns of Daughters Mary Mother of Mercy are uninhabitable. Even the chancery that houses the tribunal and fiscal offices is closed indefinitely due to extensive roof damage, according to Bishop Provost.
“The city is a disaster,” he said. “No house, no business is left untouched. The Chancery will be unusable in the foreseeable future. We have 39 (church) parishes and seven missions. All suffered some damage.”
Laura roared ashore near the Louisiana-Texas border packing winds up to 150 mph (240 kmh), leaving no community in its path unscathed. The catastrophic hurricane was the most powerful storm to ever strike Southwest Louisiana surpassing the devastation of Hurricane Rita in 2005 and even Hurricane Audrey in 1957.
As a pastor, Bishop Provost has experienced a multitude of hurricanes over 45 years, and never once did he abandon the Catholic faithful. Hurricane Laura was no exception. He remained in the Diocese of Lake Charles by riding out the storm in a northern parish for safety, returning to his Lake Charles residence within six hours after the storm had passed.
“It is extremely important for me to live in my house in the diocese so I can be available to the priests and to the faithful,” Bishop Provost strongly emphasised. “Some gentlemen from the Cathedral parish bulldozed my driveway so that I could get to my house. Every tree in my yard, except maybe three or four, were downed. You can barely see my house from Lake Street because of all the downed trees.”
Within hours of the storm’s exit through northern Louisiana and into Arkansas, the bishop reached out to the parishes of Calcasieu, Cameron, Beauregard, Allen, and Jeff Davis with a brief statement reminding them of his prayers.
Of the 39 church parishes, at least six suffered total destruction, while at least a dozen other churches are so highly compromised, said Bishop Provost, that it would be a major effort to rehabilitate them in order to have normal services going on.
“Most of what I have witnessed so far has been wind damage,” he said of the widespread destruction.
The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, which completed an extensive restoration project in 2019, was heavily impacted with roof damage. That didn’t keep the Fr Rommel Tolentino from resuming the cathedral’s weekend Mass schedule on August 29-30, with plans to celebrate the noon Mass on weekdays, despite no electricity. The Solemnity of the re-dedication of the 107-year-old structure took place on August 31.
Bishop Provost plans to visit as many of the parishes as possible so he can see first-hand the destruction, especially the parishes that received significant damage. That would include St Peter the Apostle in Hackberry, Our Lady of the Assumption in Johnson Bayou, Our Lady Star of the Sea in Cameron, Sacred Heart of Jesus in Creole, St Eugene in Grand Chenier, and Our Lady of the Lake in Big Lake. He was told St Patrick in Sweetlake is still standing. This was true after Hurricanes Rita and Ike as well.
Of the six Catholic schools in the diocese, the only one that could open last week was Our Lady Immaculate in Jennings.
“St Louis Catholic High School is severely damaged,” Bishop Provost said. “Fr (Nathan) Long, rector of the school, reported that the roof on the administration building is, for the most part, blown off. Windows in various classrooms are blown in, and there is roof damage at the gym.”
Bishop Provost also spoke with Principal Trevor Donnelly, of Our Lady Queen of Heaven Catholic School, and from what he could tell, the damage to the school was minimal. However, damage to OLQH church was substantial.
“On Saturday, there was a team of 40 people cleaning up around the church that suffered damage to the roof and windows. There was also major damage to the rectory. Two trees fell in the yard, and the chimney fell, demolishing the patio. There is significant roof damage and interior damage such that the priests cannot live there,” the Bishop explained.
As of Saturday morning, Bishop Provost said roughly 20 priests, a third of who are in active ministry, are unable to inhabit their rectories. Some have been relocated to other rectories with little or no damage. Some are residing at the Vianney House, others at the Cathedral, while some are in private homes.
Regarding the extent of damages to the chancery on Iris Street, the roof caved in. There is no email, landline phone, or internet, said the bishop. The entire chancery is being tarped. The Bishop Harold Perry ministries building across the street from the chancery sustained little to no damage, with only the east windows of the building broken.
The intensity of Laura was also felt just north of Lake Charles at Saint Charles Center in Moss Bluff. The diocesan retreat centre lost the majority of its trees, many of them lining the long, winding driveway to the front gate. The Katharine Drexel Conference Center towards the front of the property took about nine trees resulting in roof damage that penetrated the building. Just down the road to the east of Saint Charles Center, the damage was less severe at the newly built Catholic youth camp known as Camp Karol. The sign at the front gate was blown down, and one of the bungalows under construction was impacted by a tree.
Phone calls of concern have been pouring in to Bishop Provost from dozens of friends, some as far away as Europe, in addition to a multitude of bishops, friends, and civic officials within the United States.
Catholic Charities of Southwest Louisiana, under the leadership of Sr Miriam Maclean, RSM, was on the ground running the same day of the hurricane as soon as it was safe to do so. She was the first one on site Thursday afternoon to assess the situation.
“We are here, we are open and we are trying to meet the needs of the community,” said Sister Miriam.
“The Lord preserved Catholic Charities from any major damage for sure so that we can be up and operational,” she continued. “We have a little bit of leakage in the roof, and a couple of roll-up doors got a little damage, but we are blessed. We have a generator, and the Religious Sisters of Mercy are running the office.”
Sr Miriam is grateful for the outpouring of help from all around the country, even as close as her own backyard.
When the Religious Sisters of Mercy returned to Lake Charles within hours after the storm, but could not access St Hubert’s Convent on Martha Street, one of the newly ordained priests for the Diocese of Lake Charles came to their rescue. Fr Joseph Caraway chainsawed tree after tree creating a makeshift path so the sisters could access their home. The neighbours were very appreciative as well.
But, he didn’t stop there. Fr Caraway, a parochial vicar at St Henry Catholic Church, donned his cassock and walked around the surrounding neighbourhoods going door to door delivering food to the homebound.
Newly installed Bishop David Toups from the Beaumont diocese had his own damages to assess after Hurricane Laura, but said it was minor compared to the Diocese of Lake Charles. Bishop Provost was on hand to greet Bishop Toups, and he even operated the forklift to unload the donated supplies.
While the landscape will be forever changed in surrounding cities and rural areas, one thing that remains constant is the unwavering faith of hundreds of thousands left to tell their own stories of survival, hope and fortitude as they take the first steps to rebuild their homes, businesses and churches.
Bishop Provost assured everyone that the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass will continue to be offered by priests throughout the Diocese of Lake Charles wherever possible, even if there is only one person in attendance.
“We appreciate everyone’s prayers,” he said. “Bishops in other dioceses have sent word of assistance to us, so we appreciate the fellowship of the other Catholic dioceses throughout the nation. I have heard from bishops on the East and West coasts, and especially in Texas and Louisiana.”
The scope of damages throughout the diocese continues to trickle in as pastors can safely make their way to their church parishes.
Those wanting to make a financial gift to assist the Diocese of Lake Charles in its disaster response may send donations to Catholic Charities via their website, www.catholiccharitiesswla.com.
Pamela Seal is the Communications Associate Director of the Diocese of Lake Charles in Louisiana