Parish life still thrives at flood-damaged Houston church

By James Ramos

HOUSTON (CNS) — The 22nd week
in ordinary time of the church’s liturgical year has been no ordinary time for
Father Martin Eke, a Missionary of St. Paul, or his parish, St. Francis of
Assisi Catholic Church in Houston.

“Ever since the rain started … my life has
never been busier,” Father Eke said Sept. 6.

The parish and its school, which serves a vibrant
African-American Catholic community in northeast Houston, were covered in at
least 4 feet of water from Hurricane Harvey rains and rising water from a
flooded nearby bayou.

As the storm approached Houston, Father Eke kept
vigil in prayer, watching the waters rise from his rectory window. A St.
Francis of Assisi statue in a nearby prayer garden was his measure of the
flood. As soon as the water reached the statue’s waist, Father Eke pushed
through the water to the church to save what he could.

When the church’s lights went out, he waded to the rectory
through rushing water for a flashlight, and then went back to save more church property.
But when he saw more water inside the church, he knew he had to leave. In less
than an hour, the water had risen above his waist.

Even “the door (to exit) was difficult to open,”
Father Eke said. “The water was rushing so fast,” flooding into the
church. At that point, all he could do was wait out the storm in his home.

Then, “I could do nothing but pray,” he
said describing the rectory as “a ship on a high sea.” In the end,
the rectory was just one of two parish buildings that didn’t flood.

A few dozen yards away from the rectory, floodwater
rushed into the St. Francis of Assisi Catholic School’s library, science lab
and gymnasium, where dozens of the school’s basketball team uniforms, sports
equipment and treasured championship trophies became drenched in muddy water.

When the water receded, parishioners came to help
salvage what they could.

It wasn’t until after the muck work — the exhausting
process of cleaning and demolishing damaged property after floods — that Ronald Berard, longtime volunteer basketball coach and parish acolyte, could finally
look at the gym’s damage more closely.

“No matter how much washing you do, I would
never let my team wear uniforms that had been in so much mold,” Berard
said, visibly stunned. “They’re a total loss.”

Almost hesitant to continue, he found his gym floors,
installed only five years ago, in pieces. Water still pooled under the vinyl
floors, as he navigated piles of equipment, chairs and kitchen appliances
inside the gym.

In the science lab, library and school office, the
concrete walls survived most of the flood, but the floors and countless
teaching equipment and resources did not. Broken glass showed where looters
broke into classrooms during the storm. Next to the school playground outside,
shelving, furniture and debris splayed out in the sun.

After Harvey, the students were transferred to a
nearby Catholic school to begin the school year, again. Most schools had just
started classes, when Harvey’s floods interrupted hundreds of schools in the
region for weeks.

In the parish office, formerly the convent for the
Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word who helped found the school, there was
a gaping hole in the ceiling, mold on the walls and water bubbling up from below
floor tiles.

More than a week after Harvey’s wake, Father Eke made
sure that St. Francis of Assisi parish life continued.

“We are running, no matter how small it is, we
are running,” he said.

Parishioners still meet for regularly scheduled
parish activities inside the St. Josephine Bakhita Center, a trailer high
enough to avoid the flood. The Bakhita Center, which honors the African saint
who survived slavery and became a religious sister, is now home to morning Mass
and adoration, a choir room, parish prayer groups and the parish office.

Work crews made quick work across the parish grounds,
a scene replicated tens of thousands of times across the Texas Gulf Coast. Darwin
Soares Jr., a Brazilian who currently lives in Orlando, Florida, and has been
helping to clear the parish grounds, said coming to the Houston church was a

“Some people come for money, but I come with my
heart. I can work in hotels, houses, but a church? It’s special. Even if I have
to work for free, I will. When I saw what was happening, I knew I had to come

Recalling his experiences of celebrating outdoor Masses
in Africa, Father Eke encouraged parishioners who could safely get to the
parish to attend an outdoor Mass Sept. 3.

“Bring your own chairs and I will bring the
altar,” Father Eke said.

In his homily, he urged parishioners to remain firm
in their faith amid the challenges they were facing.

“It is such a time like this that genuine faith,
love and generosity are put to test. Let no one walk away. Let no one be
discouraged,” he said. “This situation can only, temporarily, slow us
down but will not stop us.”

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is a staff writer and designer for the Texas Catholic Herald, newspaper of the
Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston.

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