BOSTON — As director of the Center of Jesus the Lord, a charismatic retreat house situated in the French Quarter of New Orleans, the last two weeks have been busier than Father John Capuci could ever have imagined.
The Wakefield native priest on loan to the Archdiocese of New Orleans shared his experience with The Pilot in a Sept. 13 telephone interview.
Father Capuci himself was not in New Orleans the day the hurricane made landfall. Two days before the hurricane struck the Gulf Coast, he heeded the warnings and evacuated New Orleans. Together with his mother, who happened to be in New Orleans for a visit, they went to stay with longtime friends in Galveston, Texas.
However, Father Capuci said he understands why many people were not so willing to evacuate. Because many past predictions of hurricanes bashing the Gulf Coast never materialized, he said, “I think [residents of] New Orleans were a little comfortable with the history of hurricanes missing” and never really expected it to cause such damage.
“Coming to Galveston, I really believed that I would be back at the center on Tuesday,” he admitted.
However, after seeing television images of the devastation Hurricane Katrina inflicted on the area, and watching in horror as New Orleans filled with floodwaters, Father Capuci realized it would take much more time before he would be able to re-enter his beloved city.
As the city began to flood, Father Capuci got word that 13 lay members of the Center of Jesus the Lord were taking shelter in the retreat house, their ages ranging from 25 to 97.
Because the retreat house is situated in “one of the higher points of the French Quarter,” explained Father Capuci, it was never flooded. However, like much of the rest of the city, those taking refuge at the center had no electricity, no running water, no air conditioning and no form of communication.
Unable to communicate, and unsure of how to help, Father Capuci spent the first few days in turmoil.
“The first couple of days I was an absolute mess,” he recalled. “I was very worried about the people in the center.”
Equally disturbing to him were the images of a New Orleans rife with looting and violence.
“The violence and the criminal acts you saw in the street is not the New Orleans I know,” he said emphatically. “I would hope that people wouldn’t see the small minority of criminals doing what criminals do — creating fear and havoc — and think that is New Orleans.”
Devastated, Father Capuci admitted he began to feel “lost.”
On Sept 2, four days after Hurricane Katrina made landfall, Father Capuci had “a major turning point.” While praying the Office of Readings, he read a passage from Jeremiah in which God promises to rebuild Jerusalem. “I had an incredible sense of God’s presence for the first time in this whole mess,” he said.
That very day, six of those who had taken refuge at the retreat house arrived inGalveston.
“When they got to Galveston,” he recalled, “after having no electricity, no water, no air conditioning, they came and thanked me for letting them stay at the center. I couldn’t believe that they were so thankful.”
Seeing them arrive in Galveston with absolutely nothing, Father Capuci felt called to care for his flock. He set about finding them a place to live, clothing and furniture. Although he originally planned to find separate apartments for the two families in the group, the hurricane survivors asked to stay together.
“They went through the storm together. They went through the flood together. They heard about the violence together. They wanted to stay together,” he said.
Since then, Father Capuci has been busy tracking down the remaining members of his congregation of about 250 regular Mass-goers.
“We have many people — all members of the center — who have lost their homes, their businesses,” he said. “We don’t know where everybody is right now, or how dispersed we are all going to be. Slowly but surely we are finding out where everybody is.”
According to Father Capuci, almost half of the center’s “tight-knit community” have been located, although most of them have “lost their homes, their businesses, and are in real need right now.”
Despite the loss, Father Capuci is sure the Center of Jesus the Lord and the houses of its members will once again stand.
“I am chomping at the bit to get back into Louisiana,” he declared. In fact, he is preparing to return next week to a retreat house in another part of the state that is currently housing several hurricane victims.
“I absolutely believe our community is so strong and so committed to the Lord and to each other, that we will rebuild,” he asserted. “But first, we have to be patient,” he added, noting that “the rebuilding process will take months.”
Once people are allowed back into New Orleans, Father Capuci hopes that volunteers will come from across the country to help rebuild the city, and he plans to be an integral part of it.
“It would be a privilege for the retreat house on Rampart [the Center of Jesus the Lord] to be the place to house the volunteers and send them out to rebuild,” he mused.
“We will need many hands on deck to help rebuild,” continued Father Capuci, adding that if “somehow those willing to volunteer can let their names be known,” then they can be contacted when the general public is allowed to enter the city.
According to Father Capuci, the most immediate need is “resources to help us keep going.” Money donated is currently being used to pay for food, gasoline, clothing, furniture and other basic necessities. “If people can help the center financially, then we can have the resources available to help those who most need it.”
Equally important, he added, is the need for prayer.
“We need prayer,” he said. “Pray the luminous mysteries for New Orleans, that when it is rebuilt it will truly be the Kingdom of God.”