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Engulfed: Where acts of God are a way of life

Saturday, July 17, 2010 | 10:24 p.m. CDT; updated 4:01 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 18, 2010
St. Patrick Catholic Church in Port Sulphur, La., is frequently used for relief work related to the oil spill in the Gulf.

PORT SULPHUR, La. — The thing about pain is we find ways to live with it.

Many of us try to survive it by burying ourselves — in booze, in bad TV, in self-help books, in a million ritualistic hobbies. We go to the things that help make us feel quiet inside and then wait for the hurting to stop and for the broken places to feel fixed again.

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At St. Patrick Catholic Church in Port Sulphur, La., they pray. And the impression you get from visiting this congregation, located in the heart of oil-imperiled Plaquemines Parish, is not one of anger or despair but a rather bewildering one — that things are OK.

As I sat on the steps outside the church, waiting for Saturday services to begin, 78-year-old George Wedge explained it to me.

"Their life is built around their faith," said Wedge, a Knights of Columbus officer who frequently visits from Gretna, located near New Orleans. "It's so ingrained they don't even think about it. They thank God for what they get and pray to get over the bad things."

The parish has been routinely stricken with disaster. It's a place where acts of God have become a way of life and where Betsy, Camille and Katrina are not the names of daughters but of cataclysms.

"After every one of these disasters, they have an opportunity to move somewhere else, but they don't," Wedge said of the largely fishing-oriented community, jamming his hands in his pockets. "They stay."

He pointed at the church. Five years ago, he said, a friend by the name of Duffy Lavigne stayed for Hurricane Katrina, when the parish became submerged in more than a dozen feet of water. Lavigne swam half a mile to the church, where he waited in the 20-foot-high choir loft to be rescued by boat.

"His wife passed, and she was buried in the cemetery (behind the church), and he didn't want to leave her," Wedge said. He paused, and seemed to get lost in his thoughts. "There's hundreds of stories like that here."

Martin Ancar, a 68-year-old retired garbage collector, joined us. When I asked him about the parish's troubles, he grinned.

"Hey, we all got troubles," he said. "But no sense in complainin'. You got problems, I got problems — we just thank the Good Lord for bein' here, bro."

Inside, the pews were about a third of the way full, though I was told Sunday mornings typically draw a packed house. Hanging on the wall just right of the altar is a photo of the church taken post-Katrina. The pews have all been taken away, water stands on the floor and a cross lies toppled on its side. The church managed to recover with the help of secondhand pews and statuary donated by other churches.

After Sunday's services, several parishioners expressed an attitude of resilience, self-reliance and community. One woman, Andria Barthelemy, 44, only slightly annoyed, said she wasn't eligible for BP compensation for lost shrimping work because she never sold her catch — she always gave it away to family, friends and the elderly.

But the utter lack of apparent self-pity among this congregation has a shadow. Those who expressed the most concern were those worried about others.

Germaine Curley, 75, a former resident visiting from Picayune, Miss., still remembers the exact day she moved out of Plaquemines Parish: Dec. 28, 1996. She said her husband made her move, but a part of her never left, and she visits as often as possible. Whenever disaster strikes, as it seems it so often does, she prays for her former neighbors.

"My heart just breaks for them," she said. "Their pain is my pain."

Before I left, I asked the Rev. Gerard Stapleton for his thoughts. Stapleton, slouched down in a metal folding chair, as if he might feel weighed down by something. He seems like a man who's been pondering the mental and physical travails of his parishioners for decades.

"After Katrina, uncertainty about safety led to a lot of young people leaving," he said.

According to the U.S. Census, Plaquemines Parish lost more than 20 percent of its population between 2000 and 2009.

When I commented on the unshakeable optimism of his parishioners, he simply turned to me and said, "Beginning of every (hurricane season), you can see the anxiety."

Living off the land, the bayou, the river, the Gulf is a tough life, he said. The best he can do is simply encourage them to put their faith in God.

"I'm not going to theologize, I'm not going to complicate the message," he said. "It's just, 'Put your trust in God. This too will pass.'"


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