Churchgoers gathered to pray at the historic St. Louis Cathedral, convening in the building described as the “soul of the city” for its first Sunday Mass since Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans more than a month ago.
Emergency workers and soldiers — many of them out-of-towners who descended on Louisiana in the aftermath of the hurricane — mixed with newly returning residents as they prayed for the resolve to carry on.
One man, standing in the back of the church, said to himself as if in prayer: “Welcome back, New Orleans.”
Louisiana Archbishop Alfred C. Hughes spoke of the more than 900 people who perished and offered hope for those who remain to face rebuilding a region that still has some floodwaters, scattered power outages and wind damage.
“This is indeed an historic moment in the life — not only in the church of New Orleans but in the whole city,” Hughes said. “The structure which harbors the soul of our city has come back to life. ... Thanks be to God.”
‘I will bring you home’
The church was bright, as light shining down from the balcony made the altar’s gold accents glitter. Candles burned on the altar and brightly lit chandeliers hung from the ceiling painted with religious pictures.
“The St. Louis Cathedral is a symbol that really unites all of our city, and this is what we’re going to need to move forward,” archdiocesan spokesman the Rev. William Maestri said before the Mass began.
Some churchgoers shed tears during the service, as the choir and congregation sang hymns about finding shelter in a storm and getting through dark times. The communion hymn contained the lyrics “I am hope for all who are hopeless ... I will bring you home.”
“I cried just when thoughts came to me of all the things people are going through,” said Michelle Hernandez, 27, of Jefferson Parish, who attended the service with her husband and two children. “I thought (the Mass) was just well said, appropriate and compassionate for what I think people need to hear right now.”
Hope for a better city
Hughes reassured the congregation that God did not cause the hurricane to punish evildoers. “God tolerates evil in order that we may ultimately realize a greater good,” he said, urging those gathered to keep a close relationship with God.
Perhaps, he said, New Orleans would rebuild as a community with a stronger moral thread, a community free of racial tension and rampant self-indulgence.
Prayers were offered for the victims, survivors and rescue workers who came to help after hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Dozens of firefighters and soldiers attended, many standing in back since the church pews that seat about 1,000 were filled.
Some parishioners offered a touch of humor, with one wearing a T-shirt that read: “I gave! The house, the car, the job ... Hurricane Katrina.”
Katie Mello, 30, came to church with her fiance and mother. Mello grew up in New Orleans and now lives in Orlando, Fla., with her fiance. The couple plans to get married at the cathedral in June and returned to the city to bring back relatives who had evacuated.
“This is the heart and soul of the city, so this is where it all starts,” Mello said.
Church's long history
Located in Jackson Square, the cathedral was originally built in 1727. The first Church of St. Louis lasted 61 years, until it was destroyed by fire. The triple-spired cathedral was rebuilt on the same location. Since then, it has withstood hurricanes and hailstorms.
It was left virtually untouched by Katrina’s fierce winds and high waters.
Outside the church, a marble statue of Jesus Christ, with his arm outstretched, had the thumb and forefinger snapped off in the storm.
“I’m going to ask that those fingers not be reattached until we have completed ... the recovery of New Orleans,” the archbishop said.
The church is prominent in the community and is featured on postcards and paintings of Jackson Square. It is a regular stop for tourists, attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors each year.
Penance after Mardi Gras
Pope John Paul II celebrated Mass there in 1987. And each year after the famed and raucous Mardi Gras celebration, many penitents head to the cathedral to receive ashes on Ash Wednesday.
Sunday’s Mass was being held while relief workers and crews continued the massive task of continuing to remove the floodwaters. Water was still being pumped out of the heavily flooded lower Ninth Ward. Officials expected the pumping to be completed by midweek, said Mitch Frazier, spokesman for the Army Corps of Engineers.
Electricity had been restored to about 29 percent of New Orleans customers and about 98 percent of Jefferson Parish customers, said Chanel Lagarde, a spokesman for Entergy Corp.
As of Friday, the state health department reported 932 deaths in Louisiana from Hurricane Katrina. Mississippi’s death toll was 221.