Even Hurricane Katrina couldn't keep this nun out of New Orleans

by KATE VEIK
Fri, Aug 28th 2015 12:00 pm
Catholic News Agency  [ View Original Article ]
A nun reflect back on Hurricane Katrina, which devastated the city of New Orleans 10 years ago. (Courtesy of WikimediaCommons.org)
A nun reflect back on Hurricane Katrina, which devastated the city of New Orleans 10 years ago. (Courtesy of WikimediaCommons.org)

NEW ORLEANS (CNA/EWTN News) - For Sister Greta Jupiter, SSF, it was an odd sensation driving through New Orleans East in the months after Hurricane Katrina. Her neighborhood was quiet. The power, out. Gone was the familiar white noise of birds chirping. There was no traffic, save for military and first responders.

"I felt like I was in the middle of a war zone," she told CNA. "It was just that devastating."

The month was October 2005 and Sister Greta was making her first, unofficial visit to New Orleans, her hometown and the seedbed of her religious vocation, since Hurricane Katrina. Sister Greta and her fellow Sisters of the Holy Family had been staying at a convent and a private home in Lafayette.

Before driving into the water-logged city, Sister Greta was required to get a tetanus shot and several other vaccinations. She wore a mask and rubber boots. Her goal was to visit Saint Mary's Academy, a private all-girl's high school her community had established more than 160 years prior. She was principal of the academy at the time.

She'd heard rumors the school had been spared from massive flooding after the city's levees failed. More than 80 percent of New Orleans was underwater, but she still hoped against hope that St. Mary's was in the lucky 20 percent.  

It wasn't.

St. Mary's had been submerged in more than eight feet of water. The water had since drained, but the first level of the school was still sitting in six inches of black mud. Mold climbed up the walls and several classrooms had been completely emptied of desks, computers and chairs.

"That was the end of everything," Sister Greta said.

On the drive back to Lafayette that October day, Sister Greta turned several thoughts over in her mind. "Lord, give me some direction," she prayed. "Where do you want me to go from here? Can the school be rebuilt? Will the people come back? Is New Orleans East something of the past?"  

This month marks 10 years since Hurricane Katrina paved its destructive path across the southern coast of the United States, causing some $108 billion in damages. The Category 3 hurricane was one of the strongest storms to strike the U.S. coast in a century, according to FEMA. The hurricane and its aftermath killed more than 1,800 people - the vast majority of whom were in Louisiana.

Those who didn't lose their lives to Katrina lost their homes, their jobs and their community. Sister Greta and the Sisters of the Holy Family were no exception: the community's school, nursing home, and motherhouse were rendered unusable by the floodwaters.

"I just didn't know what to think or believe because I had never, ever experienced anything like this," Sister Greta said. "It was not anything that anyone could have been prepared for or could have even imagined. It was like an atomic bomb exploded or something."

The sisters were weighing their options when then-Archbishop Clifton Hughes announced that the diocese would return to the city to rebuild. The sisters decided to follow suit.

"There's no way that the Archdiocese of New Orleans can be in existence if the Sisters of the Holy Family cannot be there," Sister Greta said. "The Sisters of the Holy Family was founded in New Orleans and for the people in New Orleans first."

The Sisters of the Holy Family were founded in New Orleans in the 1800s to minister to slaves and the poor. St. Mary's Academy was the first Catholic secondary school for African American girls in New Orleans.

Sister Greta's first order of business was to reach out to all of St. Mary's senior students, whose final year at the all-girls high school had been disrupted by Hurricane Katrina. Many of the students and their families had temporarily settled in Houston or Atlanta. Sister Greta invited the seniors to return to New Orleans for St. Mary's traditional ring ceremony, during which seniors receive their class rings marking their last year at the school. More than half of the school's seniors were able to return for the celebration at New Orleans' St. Louis Cathedral.

Sister Greta said the ring ceremony was the first sign of hope for the future of St. Mary's Academy.

"Those students who were able to come back to the city...when they came back and they saw their other classmates, they just screamed and cried," she said. "Parents and students were happy to have some feeling of belonging again to the school."

"St. Mary's was still alive."

The academy was able to offer classes again as early as January, through a collaboration with two other Catholic schools in the area. The "MAX school" represented St. Mary's Academy, St. Augustine High School and Xavier University Preparatory School. Former students of the three schools were able to register for classes on a first-come, first-serve basis - and the MAX school had a full enrollment, despite the fact that many former students were unable to return to New Orleans.

That spring, students at the "MAX school" marched in a parade for Mardi Gras.

Sister Greta said the "MAX school" was an anchor of hope for students and their families who were still picking up the pieces of their lives after Katrina.

"The important thing for us at the time was to try to bring some normalcy to the lives of the students," she explained. "Just like I was homeless at one time, they were homeless. And not only homeless but school-less and friend-less because they were disassociated with the friends they went to school with...(they were) people among strangers."

"We wanted to bring them back to their comfort zone to a place that they felt that they were part of a family."

In fall of 2006 - exactly one year after Hurricane Katrina - St. Mary's Academy opened a full academic program for grades 1-12 in St. James Major Catholic Church, which was not in use at the time. The program included a boarding house for children whose families were unable to return to New Orleans because their homes had been destroyed.

The following year, the program moved into portable classrooms on St. Mary's Academy's original grounds. And in 2010, St. Mary's Academy moved into a brand new building on their original grounds. The school now offers classes for pre-K through 12th grade.  

For Sister Greta, Hurricane Katrina "showed us that people do care and that there is good in everything."

"God allows things to happen for a reason," Sister Greta said. "We don't really know what those reasons are and we may not get the answer right away but...in the end, you'll find out that there was a good reason for it."

Even with the brand new building, Hurricane Katrina has still left a mark on the students of St. Mary's Academy. Many girls experience anxiety and stress when it rains or when there are reports of hurricanes nearby. But Sister Greta believes the community at St. Mary's Academy can help students heal.

"We're home, we're anchored, and we are your family," Sister Greta said.  

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