St. Raphael’s Lenten project becomes an answer to prayers for Puerto Rican parish recovering from hurricane

Photo courtesy of Parroquia San Rafael

More than four months after Hurricane Maria devastated the island of Puerto Rico, Father Jorge Virella was feeling stressed as he worried about how his parish, San Rafael in Quebradillas, was going to come up with the funding to restore several chapels.

At the same time, about 2,000 miles away in St. Louis, Father Bob Reiker had cracked open the Official Catholic Directory, looking for a church in Puerto Rico where his parishioners at St. Raphael the Archangel could send donations from their recent Lenten project.

Father Virella had offered a prayer to God: "I am not asking for more than I need, but I am only asking for what I need," the priest said in a recent phone interview from Puerto Rico.

The next day, Father Virella received an answer to his prayers in the form of a phone call. A church in St. Louis with the same namesake was interested in sending a donation to help with recovery efforts. All said and done, St. Raphael raised a total of $16,000.

The priest recalled feeling a sense of "overwhelming peace — and thankfulness to God, because He was giving me just what I needed." As Father Virella shared the news with his parishioners, "some of them began to cry" with joy, he added.

Quebradillas is a largely rural area located in northwestern Puerto Rico. San Rafael parish has a main church and eight smaller chapels. There are about 35,000 people living within the geographic boundaries, which stretches seven miles wide and three miles long, although not all of those are parishioners, said Father Virella. Sunday Masses average about 2,000 people. The total population is about 70 percent Catholic.

Of eight chapels, six suffered damage in Hurricane Maria. The Category 4 storm hit the U.S. territory on Sept. 20 with sustained winds of 155 mph. Nearly eight months later, repair work is beginning at one of San Rafael's hardest-hit chapels, San José, which lost portions of its metal roof and had extensive water damage inside. The chapel was out of commission for four months, until members of the Knights of Columbus in Puerto Rico provided a tarp to cover the damaged roofline.

The parish is due to receive about $66,000 from insurance coverage, but the total estimate for repairs is between $98,000 and $110,000. Father Virella attributed the discrepancy to skyrocketing costs of construction. Materials come by ship, and Father Virella cited a long wait for materials.," Plus contractors are in the high demand, he said.

For Father Reiker back in St. Louis, the fundraiser was relatively easy to put together. The priest has organized a Lenten project for the past 15 years, starting when he was at Immaculate Conception in Dardenne Prairie and carrying on to subsequent assignments. St. Raphael parishioners mobilized, making a model church of styrofoam and placing a red tile on the roof for each $100 raised. The school children held several fundraisers during Lent, contributing about $1,000.

Father Reiker's past Lenten projects have included $73,000 for the Ugandan Cow Project with Microfinancing Partners in Africa, which was raised by parishioners at Mary Queen of Peace in Webster Groves. Last year, St. Raphael parishioners raised $20,000 to purchase a van for Queen of Peace Center, a Catholic Charities agency that provides behavioral health care for women with addiction, their children and families.

Father Virella, of course, is elated that St. Raphael's Lenten stewardship became the answer to San Rafael's prayers.

"To the people of St. Raphael, we are so thankful for the generous help they have provided," he said. 

>> Power 4 Puerto Rico

Power 4 Puerto Rico is a coalition of organizations, leaders and advocates from across the nation working together to address the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria through advocacy, strategic communications and direct mobilization. The group calls on Congress and the administration to adopt an agenda that puts Puerto Rico's economy on the road to future growth and prosperity.

With hurricane season approaching, Power 4 Puerto Rico members say that the U.S. territory is not able to handle the impact of another major storm. The group noted that as of four months after Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico is still facing numerous problems, including:

• Before the hurricane, Puerto Rico was already experiencing the largest out-migration in its history. An estimated 213,000 residents of Puerto Rico will leave the island annually in the aftermath of Hurricane María

• At least 22,000 residents of Puerto Rico have applied for unemployment benefits since the Department of Labor reopened its offices on Oct. 6.

• As many as 50,000 small and medium businesses have not reopened since the hurricane.

• There are still some issues with power outages and clean water supply. 

>> Donate

Catholic Charities USA is the official domestic relief agency of the U.S. Catholic Church. Disaster response and recovery efforts include direct assistance, rebuilding and health care services. Every dollar of funds raised goes to those affected. Catholic Charities USA to date has contributed $7.7 million in relief funding to the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.

To donate and learn more about relief efforts, visit 

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