A report by Joe Boland for RNS.
The Rev. Louis Kemayou, native of Africa and newbie to hurricanes, was in his church in St. Croix when Hurricane Maria hit this Virgin Island.
It was the night of Sept. 21, and the roof of the rectory of the Sts. Joachim and Ann Catholic Church began to rip apart.
The frightened priest sought refuge in the living room, where he crouched and implored heaven: “God, I can’t run any more. Please do your work!”
Kemayou showed me the place where he sought refuge recently when I visited the island as part of a delegation from Catholic Extension, which has provided some $3 million in support for the Diocese of St. Thomas since the 1960s. Catholic Extension continues to provide assistance since the U.S. Virgin Islands were hit by Maria and Irma, both Category 5 hurricanes, just two weeks apart.
As it turns out, the living room was the only area in the house that still had a part of the roof intact. But damage was typical of the destruction wrought by storms across the U.S. Virgin Islands, whose total land mass is only one-tenth that of Rhode Island.
Bishop Herbert Bevard said that virtually “every church and every school” in his diocese was affected. The local economy, which is heavily reliant on tourism, came to a screeching halt. And so with little income and a long road to recovery ahead, there is a profound sense of uncertainty.
Even before the hurricanes, the diocese was on a small budget. It only has two and a half diocesan employees. But a budget does not measure the size of one’s heart and spirit.
In the wake of the hurricanes, Catholic-operated homeless shelters and soup kitchens have stepped up their efforts. The diocese is planning to open yet another homeless shelter in the coming year to extend services to even more people.
During our travels, we saw a great deal of collapsed or damaged buildings and felled trees, but what left the deepest impression was simply listening to the firsthand accounts of what it was like to live through this unprecedented “one-two punch” of maximum-strength storms.
Bevard, a Philadelphia native who arrived in the Virgin Islands 10 years ago, had never been through a severe hurricane. He said it was like lying down in the middle of a railroad track while a train passes over for five unrelenting hours. The only thing to do is wait and hope to not get hit or dragged.
He spent the night fearing every thump, every wind gust blowing debris against the house, could be the start of something catastrophic.
Like Kemayou, many of Bevard’s 14 priests were also new to hurricanes. The Rev. Boniface Blanchard Twaibu, a native of the Congo, is pastor of St. Patrick’s Church in Frederiksted. The church, built in 1846, is a strikingly beautiful structure inside and out. As Maria battered the coastal town through the night, Twaibu took shelter in an upper room of the old rectory. Outside he heard a loud crash — a stone wall on the side of the building collapsed like toy blocks. Fearing that the entire building was ready to fall, he fled to the church, where he prayed and passed the storm as the roof there began to tear away. Today a blue Federal Emergency Management Agency tarp is shrouded over the church, which is currently unusable for public gatherings.
Bevard said his priests, who serve eight parishes and four schools in the diocese, are heroes.
“They’re with their people, they’re suffering with their people, and they’re easing the suffering of their people, both spiritual, emotional, psychological and physical,” he said.
The islands’ Catholic schools provide a safe and nurturing environment for young people, who live in these island communities where drugs, prostitution, poverty and violence are sadly widespread.
At St. Joseph’s High School on St. Croix, one of the school’s annex classroom buildings, where art and history are taught, was destroyed. Nonetheless, St. Joseph and all the other Catholic schools were back in operation shortly after the hurricanes.
We met with the high school’s senior class, whose members are still planning to attend college or enter the military next year, and a number of them have already been accepted to prominent universities in the contiguous United States.
I have visited a number of hurricane-ravaged dioceses this year and seen how such moments of crisis can become unique opportunities for the Catholic Church to give witness to what being a faith community is all about. Whether they are offering education to displaced students, charitable support to the poor or spiritual care to those who have lost so much, the church is bringing hope to these devastated communities. These are the types of moments that will be remembered for generations, and the Diocese of St. Thomas realizes that this is a time to dig in, not let up.
As Father Kemayou noted, “What we do today is for the generations to come.”