Texas parishioners shocked by devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey

Rick Wilking | Reuters
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HOUSTON -- With floodwater as high as 20 feet from swelling bayous and waterways, thousands of homes in the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston flooded as Tropical Storm Harvey continued to batter southeast Texas Aug. 28.

Bishops from dioceses along the mid-Texas Gulf Coast, including Victoria and Galveston-Houston, granted dispensations from regular Mass Sunday obligations Aug. 27.

The storm, which made landfall a day earlier as a Category 4 hurricane, was downgraded to a tropical storm and claimed at least four lives. The record-breaking rainfall, as much as 28 inches over 24 hours in four counties in the archdiocese, was "unprecedented" and "catastrophic," according to the National Hurricane Center. The region typically sees about 49 inches of rain in a year.

In southeast Houston, Father David Bergeron, a member of the Companions of the Cross order, spent Saturday night in his truck on a highway because of rising floodwater. The next morning, he kayaked the flooded streets to try to find wine to celebrate Sunday Mass for nearby stranded neighbors.

Sitting atop his red kayak, Father Bergeron told a local TV reporter on a live broadcast that he was trying to return home to celebrate Mass. He had visited Galveston for a kayak trip the previous day.

"I tried to go back home for Mass and ... I didn't make it," Father Bergeron said.

The priest used his kayak to visit a nearby convenience store for supplies as well as wine to celebrate Mass for nearby stranded neighbors.

"I even tried to buy wine right now to say Mass with some of the people who are stranded here, but that didn't happen because it's not noon yet," Father Bergeron said. Texas liquor laws prevent alcohol sales on Sundays before noon. "It's not that I usually buy alcohol that early in the morning, but I had wanted to say Mass with the few people who are stranded."

He said he was praying for everyone in need, reflecting on America's first evangelizers who came by boat.

"I guess this is how the Americas were evangelized as well, with a canoe, and this is a kayak," Father Bergeron said. "I hope that can bring a smile to a few people."

"The Lord is alive and the Lord is always with us as well, so I really pray for the protection of all the people. ...There are a few psalms that implore for the grace of God and the washing and the rain, but now we have enough rain."

Thirty miles north of Houston, 29-year-old Eric Robinson spent the morning of Aug. 27 walking three miles in floodwater to morning Mass at Sts. Simon and Jude Catholic Church in The Woodlands even though a dispensation had been given.

"I made it in time for the 9:30 a.m. Mass," he said. "It's normally a crowded Mass, but there were about 100 people."

In his homily, Father Pat Garrett, pastor, encouraged people to pray for flood victims and first responders. After Mass, Robinson trekked back to his apartment, wading through waist-deep water.

The situation was not the first time the parish has seen floodwater come close to church grounds. In April 2016, the church's center served as a Red Cross shelter. Activated again as Harvey pounded the state, at least 22 people took shelter at the church by the evening of Aug. 27, parish staff said.

Sacred Heart Church in Rosenberg, 35 miles southwest of Houston, also served as a Red Cross shelter.

Elsewhere, Danielle Noonan walked through her Sienna Plantation neighborhood southwest of Houston Aug. 27, observing the damage caused by a tornado that ripped through area the previous evening. "I feel like I'm still in shock," she said.

No sooner than her husband Chris told her to get into the closet where her two sons already were hiding, the tornado touched down a quarter-mile away, damaging at least 50 houses, shredding roofs and windows, snapping hallowed oak trees "like toothpicks" and flipping fences.

The next day, the community tried to recover quickly, but strong rains hampered efforts. Not until a trip to the grocery store for more supplies did Noonan see how shaken by the tornado her two children were.

One of them "was really scared," she said. "It was hard for him to see his friends' homes just destroyed. He didn't want to leave the safety of his home."

Noonan saw it as a good teaching moment about how to live a life of true prayer and love in the community. In an effort to rally the local churches in prayer, Noonan joined her parish, St. Angela Merici in nearby Missouri City, in hosting the Chaplet of Divine Mercy and praise and worship session on Facebook.

Noonan and her family evacuated to central Texas Aug. 28 under orders of local officials because of rising waters in the Brazos River. 

How to help

The Archdiocese of St. Louis will hold a second collection at Masses at all parishes the weekends of Sept. 2-3 and Sept. 9-10. Funds raised will go directly to Catholic relief efforts via Catholic Charities St. Louis. For more informatior or to make a donation online, visit www.ccstl.org/get-involved/donate

Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, among the areas hardest hit by Hurricane Harvey, accepts online donations to help hurricane victims at www.stlouisreview.com/jj3

The Societey of St. Vincent de Paul also is accepting donations to aid people effected by the hurricane at www.stlouisreview.com/jjO 

The Texas Catholic Conference, public policy arm of the Texas bishops, has more places to donate at www.txcatholic.org/harvey

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