Several Province ministries were damaged by Hurricane Irene, which socked the Northeast with heavy rains between Aug. 27 and 29, causing extensive flooding in New York and New Jersey. The hurricane came on the heels of an earthquake, which hit the northeast five days before.
Many of the rivers in these two states swelled after Irene’s record 12-inch rainfall in some areas. The states were declared disaster areas and President Obama visited northern New Jersey which was crippled by flooding even a week after Irene hit.
Peter Chepaitis, OFM, of Bethany Ministries in Middleburgh, N.Y., west of Albany, sustained serious damage to his trailer home and lost most of his possessions after rising water from the Schoharie Creek leveled off at 5 feet in his home. The entire town was evacuated.
“My house looked like a giant blender into which someone had put all of my furniture, appliances, clothes, electronic, the contents of a file cabinet, books, along with a generous amount of mud and let it go for hours,” said Peter in a report emailed to the Provincial Office. “Furniture ended up in rooms other than where he had it. It was not clear whether the house was structurally sound enough to be rebuilt.”
Peter lost everything, except for what he was able to grab before evacuation — his violin, Franciscan habit, Liturgy of the Hours, a laptop computer, a change of clothes, and the Blessed Sacrament. Peter acknowledges that people have been asking how they can help, and says that he is still assessing the situation.
“We have no idea yet what this will mean for Bethany Ministries,” he said. “Right now, we could use your prayers for strength to keep putting one foot in front of the other.”
Peter was the most dramatic example of Hurricane Irene’s effects in the Province. Before the evacuation, Peter drove into the village, over the protests of police, to pick up Sr. Anna Tantsits, IHM, because they have only one car between them and he wanted to make sure she would be safe.
In Obernburg, N.Y., just 70 miles away, Joseph Juracek, OFM, pastor of St. Mary Church, said the area only suffered a power loss, which kept people from church on Sunday, Aug. 29. “We had only five people at both Masses that morning,” he said.
Rising water from intense rains and a nearby brook damaged St. Bonaventure Church and Friary in Paterson, N.J. Early Sunday morning, pastor Daniel Grigassy, OFM, discovered significant flooding on the ground floor of the friary.
“The parish offices, conference room, laundry room, storage rooms and bathroom were flooded with at least 6 inches of ground water rising up from beneath the building enough to do significant damage and enough to create a putrid stench,” he said. “Ankle deep water also covered the floor of the old Tailor Shoppe of the former monastery that now serves as a large meeting room.”
The hall under the church was also flooded. Dan and Christopher VanHaight, OFM, spent Sunday afternoon bailing out the water. The parish hired professional cleaners to finish the job.
This area of northern New Jersey was particularly hard hit because the Passaic River crested its banks. “Many neighbors and parishioners are facing far more significant flooding,” said Dan. People were trapped at home or blocked from driving down their streets, he added. “The parish is doing what we can to help each other, to provide food, drink, transportation, and housing where the needs arise.
Frank Sevola, OFM, pastor of St. Mary’s Church in Pompton Lakes, N.J., another area hard hit, said that the church was spared from any damage.
“The surrounding area was not so lucky,” he said. ”There was major flooding in our neighborhood, downed trees and loss of power. Many people who were evacuated spent time in the parish’s Carnevale Center, which emergency management agencies took over and provided shelter and meals. We had about 35 people at the peak.”
Some came for a day or two, others were forced to stay longer. St. Mary’s Parish held a Labor Day weekend barbecue for parishioners still affected by the storm.
Gonzalo Torres, OFM, was delayed returning to the United States from visiting his family in Colombia, South America, when flights into the tri-state area were canceled.
St. Anthony Church and friary in Butler, N.J., fared well, according to Claude Lenehan, OFM. “In Butler, we are on high ground,” he said. “The power was off in the middle of the night but back on in the morning, and we had almost 10 inches of rain. The 5 p.m. Saturday Masses were full, but only 17 were able to come on Sunday.”
Jud Weiksnar, OFM, pastor of St. Anthony of Padua Church in Camden, N.J., said the church was the victim of only some minor water in the basement. The earthquake, a week earlier, caused some buckling in the floor of the friary, and the church may have to address some foundation issues.
With people from the shoreline and barrier islands being evacuated, friars were forced to leave St. Francis of Assisi Parish, Long Beach Island, N.J., on Friday. Fortunately, the storm didn’t hit this part of New Jersey too hard and all friars were able to return quickly. Pastor Stephen Kluge, OFM, took refuge at a Poor Clares convent in western New Jersey and the other friars stayed in other towns.
Some areas of the East Coast and Northeast prepared well for Irene and were left fairly unscathed. In New York City,Lawrence Ford, OFM, of Holy Name of Jesus Church on West 96th Street, said that the hurricane was a non-event. “Thankfully, we were dry throughout,” he said.
With public transportation shut down as a precaution in Philadelphia, many came to St. Francis Inn for a meal. Karen Pushaw, a member of the inn team, said that power was on so the staff could cook. “We had 325 for the Saturday meal and 312 for the Sunday meal.” Michael Duffy, OFM, reported slightly fewer people at Mass because of the heavy rains, but no damage to the church.
Tony LoGalbo, OFM, of Holy Name College in Silver Spring, Md., said the facility was without power from midnight Sunday through 8 p.m. Monday. ”There were a few leaks but no damage to the friary.”
In Rhode Island,Steven Patti, OFM, pastor of the Church of St. Mary in Providence, was also without damage, although many in the city lost power. “Half the city lost power but we did not lose ours. So overall, not so bad here,” said Steven.
John Maganzini, OFM, of St. Anthony Shrine in Boston said, “Irene was kind to us. The governor declared a state of emergency and we closed from Saturday 11 a.m. through all day Sunday. All sacramental ministry and programs were canceled.”
All in all, when you reflect on the fact that 45 people along the East Coast lost their lives in this storm, the Province can be thankful for its blessings. Peter said: “We’re trying to stay in the present moment and find the next few steps God is calling us to take. Please remember our friends and neighbors, especially those with children and who have lost their livelihood. One of the dairy farmers a few miles away lost his whole dairy herd.”
— Wendy Healy, author of Life is Too Short: Stories of Transformation and Renewal After 9/11, is a freelance writer based in Connecticut. Jocelyn Thomas contributed to this report.