In the wake of a mammoth storm that destroyed thousands of homes and left millions of people without power, the friars of Holy Name Province are counting themselves lucky.
As Hurricane Irma barreled toward the Caribbean islands and mainland United States, friars and partners-in-ministry began taking precautions by adjusting Mass and program schedules, boarding up buildings and advising their neighbors to take shelter.
Prior to the storm’s arrival in Puerto Rico, Archbishop Roberto González, OFM, of San Juan released a statement asking the people of Puerto Rico to maintain their “spiritual strength in the face of Hurricane Irma, an unprecedented tropical phenomenon. These moments invite us to entrust our beloved country to the loving mercy of the Father. They invite us to pray for so many people who risk their lives to protect lives, and invite us to pray for the lives of so many people vulnerable to this atmospheric system.”
Roberto asked that people care for their neighbors, especially the vulnerable, and echoed the government’s request for “serenity and prudence instead of restlessness and despair.”
The storm hit northeastern Puerto Rico on Wednesday, Sept. 6, sparing the island the worst of the rain but still delivering 185-mile-per-hour winds and 30-foot waves that knocked out power to about 70 percent of the island. The island of Culebra and the surrounding cays, which are part of Puerto Rico and lie about 17 miles east of the mainland, and the town of Loiza on mainland Puerto Rico, about 25 minutes from where Roberto lives, were hit hard.
One week after the hurricane, Roberto reported that much of San Juan, the capital, was still without power – he estimates perhaps close to one million households. Some are still without water, he added.
The fact that Puerto Rico escaped large-scale devastation is a miracle, he says. “As the storm was about to make landfall on our main island, it started to move north. It could have been much worse. One church in the archdiocese had its roof blown away and a couple of parish schools were damaged. Many large trees were uprooted and strewn across the streets and there are still a couple of thousand people in shelters. But still, overall little damage. Miraculous!”
He added, “I have been telling our people that the miracle we received is a call for us to be more generous with the victims of these natural disasters. We need to grow in a spirit of solidarity, especially with the poor. We should live with more simplicity and be more grateful to God for our many blessings.”
Government-led missions have begun evacuating people from the Virgin Islands, many of which were devastated by Irma, to Puerto Rico, according to The New York Times. Puerto Rico’s local branch of Caritas International is traveling to the nearby islands to provide emergency supplies. Roberto has traveled to St. Thomas, the gateway isle of the U.S. Virgin Islands, to assist with recovery efforts there, and plans to revisit in the future. St. Thomas suffered extensive damage during the storm and is facing a humanitarian crisis due to a lack of basic necessities, including food and water. Roberto described what he saw there as “total devastation.”
“About 2,400 patients from hospitals in St. Thomas, Tortola, the British Virgin Islands, Barbuda, Antigua, and St. Martin have been flown into San Juan and are in hospitals here,” he said. “They arrive here on a stretcher, without anyone and without anything. Caritas and other organizations are helping them.”
St. Petersburg and Tampa, Florida
After roaring through the Caribbean, Irma spiraled toward Florida. In the Tampa Bay area, the friars prepared for the worst and hoped for the best, according to George Corrigan, OFM, pastor of Sacred Heart Parish. Residents prepared for predictions that called for storm surges of up to eight feet and Category 3 winds.
Instead, Irma’s track shifted and by the time it reached the Tampa Bay area Sunday night, it had been downgraded to a Category 1 hurricane – though it still contained wind gusts of about 100 miles per hour and brought some flooding.
“The friars, the friary, and the church are all fine,” George reported on Monday. “The friary had some minor roof leaks. The church does not seem to have suffered any damage at all. After 115 years, we suspect the church has seen a storm or two.”
Sacred Heart has parishioners in more than 100 different zip codes, George said. “People hunkered down in their homes, some went to the homes of family and friends, and some went to shelters – and some left town altogether. Lots of people have checked in with the friars and to this point, all have weathered the storm. Of course, individual stories will emerge in the days to come.”
As of Monday morning, George reported that people to the north and east of Tampa were largely without power and had extensive tree damage, though there were not yet reports of significant dwelling damage.
“The problem for the areas to the east of Tampa is the river flooding that has started and will continue into Thursday,” he said. “The great unknown is the restoration of electrical power, road clearance, lifting of curfews, and restoration of city/county services. Especially in areas of river flooding, people are remaining in the shelters, which are public schools – and so another unknown is when schools and universities will reopen. The area escaped major storm damage. In time, the area will return to normal, though we are well aware that we are not even to the peak of hurricane season.”
After canceling Mass on Monday, the friars celebrated Mass on Tuesday, though the parish offices remained closed. The parish was scheduled to resume normal operation on Wednesday.
In St. Petersburg, Vincent Laviano, OFM, reported that the residents of St. Anthony Friary, the Province’s retirement community, were prepared for the storm’s arrival.
“Our house is a fairly strong one with good storm windows and a generator,” he explained. “We also live in an area where evacuations are not mandatory. We made sure we had plenty of water, food, and supplies, and we invited our staff to stay with us, especially those who live in areas where flooding is more likely to take place.”
The friary did not lose electricity and Vincent, the guardian, reported that there was no flooding around the friary, nor any damage to the building and the places around it. “St. Petersburg, in general, has done well,” he said.
Irma passed west of Orlando early on Monday morning with winds of 85 miles per hour. The lights flickered throughout the night as Steven Pavignano, OFM, parochial vicar of St. Joseph Parish and St. Maximillian Kolbe Parish, kept friends and family up-to-date via his Facebook page.
“A parishioner called to say his family is without electricity,” Steven wrote at 9 p.m. on Sunday. “They live in an area where a number of our parishioners live so I guess many parishioners in that area are without electricity.”
Despite the high winds, San Damiano Friary was relatively unscathed, with the only damage being to the fence.
“Thank you for all of your prayers and messages,” said Todd Carpenter, OFM, pastor of St. Joseph Parish and St. Maximilian Kolbe Parish, which the friars have staffed since earlier this summer. “We had lots of wind and rain, but we didn’t lose power. Our house is fine and our street looks okay. We are blessed.”
The church remained without power until Tuesday evening, when partial power was restored – though there is no air conditioning, reports Todd. Daily Masses resumed on Wednesday, though the church offices remained closed and all other parish activities were canceled. Todd reported that there were several branches down on the property. “God is good. Our church is fine,” he said, adding “The damage could have been severe.”
On Tuesday afternoon, Todd received a call from the bishop of Orlando checking on the friars, which Todd appreciated.
In Georgia, more than 1.4 million people lost power as Irma – now a tropical storm – passed through the region on Monday, bringing wind and heavy rain.
“Our parishioners provided housing to three families from Florida and Savannah,” said William McIntyre, OFM, pastor of St. Peter Claver Parish in Macon. “Sadly, many of our parishioners lost power. Many of our Latino parishioners live in mobile homes, but they seem to be okay, other than having no power. Two families sought refuge in our parish hall.”
The neighborhood is well populated with trees, said Bill, and many fell during the storm. “Remarkably, the friary never lost power. However, the friary lost siding and a large tree fell on the roof. Thanks to God, the trees did minimal damage.”
St. Peter Claver Catholic School has been closed this week due to power outages and damage throughout Bibb County, said Bill.
Farther north in Greenville, S.C., St. Anthony of Padua School – like all of the area schools – was closed Monday and Tuesday.
“We had terrible wind and rain, but there are only a few branches down at the friary and we never lost power,” said Patrick Tuttle, OFM, pastor of St. Anthony of Padua Parish. “It’s better than can be said of 40 percent of our parishioners. We are at the chainsaws and have trailers full.”
— Maria Hayes is communications coordinator for Holy Name Province. Jocelyn Thomas provided research for this story.
- “Help Sought for Hurricane Matthew Victims” – Oct. 19, 2016, HNP Today
- “Outpouring of Hurricane Relief Response Generous” – Nov. 21, 2012, HNP Today
- “‘Superstorm Sandy’ Slams East Coast Ministries” – Nov. 7, 2012, HNP Today
- “Hurricane Season Doesn’t Stop Tampa Parish” – Sept. 10, 2008, HNP Today