December 23, 2005

Katrina victim receives Christmas hope through St. Rita parishioners

By Sean Gallagher

A year ago, Charlene Booker and her husband, Sean, celebrated Christmas by joyfully welcoming their newborn daughter, Kyla, into their home in Gretna, La., just outside New Orleans.

In late August, Hurricane Katrina took Sean’s life and destroyed the Booker family’s home.

This Christmas, Booker and her three children are living in Indianapolis. But despite such tragic losses, Booker has hope for the future due in part to the care and generosity of many members of St. Rita Parish in Indianapolis—charity for which she is very thankful.

“It’s such a beautiful thing,” Booker said. “I never thought that I would have someone looking out for me.”

The outreach that this parish has made to Booker and her family is in many ways emblematic of the charity given by Catholics across the archdiocese to those affected by Katrina.

As of the beginning of December, the archdiocese had collected nearly $900,000 in Katrina relief contributions.

More than half of that was provided to the Catholic Charities-USA’s Hurricane Recovery Task Force. More than $175,000 was given directly to dioceses affected by the hurricane and to dioceses sheltering those displaced by it.

But more than $180,000 was kept back in order to meet the ongoing needs of the hurricane victims.

David Siler, executive director of Catholic Charities and Family Ministries for the archdiocese, expects that requests for aid from the Church will increase in the first months of next year as government housing assistance for Katrina victims starts to run out.

In the meantime, Catholic Charities in the archdiocese is awarding grants to individuals in need and parishes working to assist those displaced by the hurricane.

St. Rita Parish received a $5,000 grant to help cover the costs of major repairs to a home it owns where, when they are completed, the Booker family will live.

Frances Guynn, a member of St. Rita Parish, has been working directly with Booker, helping her arrange job interviews and obtain transportation for her and her family.

Despite such great material assistance from the parish, Booker said that the personal support she has received has been vital.

“It took a lot of praying and crying, but the thing that helped me through was [that God] put a lot of positive people in my life like Frances … ,” she said. “Just being able to talk with them every day when I’m upset or when I just need to talk with someone—that helps a whole lot.”

Guynn said that she has received much by helping Booker and that it has led her to understand more deeply the fragility of life.

“She gave me strength,” Guynn said. “Listening to her gave me strength. It has just made me realize that at any moment everything that you own and cherish can be taken away from you. And [God] will be the only one that you can lean on.”

But Booker has leaned on God through people like Guynn. Help has also come through St. Rita parishioner Peter Ray of Indianapolis, who has managed the repairs to the home where the Bookers will live.

For more than two months, Ray and his team of parishioners working on the house had no contact with the Booker family. They only knew that there was a family in need and they were in a position to be of assistance. That, and their gratitude for their own blessings, was enough to move them into action.

“I feel that I have been so blessed with a good job and a healthy family and just having good talents to be able to do things,” Ray said. “It’s more of just giving back for the things that I have been blessed with.”

Catholics across the archdiocese have been similarly motivated to reach out to those affected by Katrina.

More than 400 people who attended the annual adult choir Winter Concert at St. Christopher Parish in Indianapolis gave $2,400 to benefit Our Lady of the Gulf Parish in Bay St. Louis, Miss., a parish in the area affected by Katrina “adopted” by St. Christopher parishioners.

Students at St. Christopher School also recently sent Christmas gifts to the students at St. Stephen School in New Orleans.

Twenty-four schools across the archdiocese have opened their doors to students displaced by Katrina.

Many parishioners at Our Lady of the Greenwood Parish in Greenwood have been motivated to care for those affected by the hurricane.

More than $55,000 was collected in the parish for hurricane relief. The parish has sponsored five trips to New Orleans to come to the aid of Cathedral Academy and St. Anthony of Padua Parish, both in New Orleans, two communities with which the Greenwood parish has established a parish twinning relationship.

Another group of 40 members from Our Lady of the Greenwood Parish will travel to New Orleans on Christmas day.

The parish also received a $25,000 grant from Catholic Charities in the the archdiocese to continue its ministry in New Orleans

According to Peter Quirk, who leads the Archdiocese of New Orleans’ stewardship and development office, Our Lady of the Greenwood has given more in direct aid to the Church there than any other single parish in the U.S.

In the wake of its efforts to help those in New Orleans, Our Lady of the Greenwood parishioners have also committed to helping the poor affected by other natural disasters. A parish ad hoc committee formed to coordinate its response to Katrina has become the standing Our Lady of the Greenwood Disaster Relief Committee.

Valerie Sperka, a member of the parish and a development specialist for Catholic Charities for the archdiocese, is the committee’s chairperson.

She noted that the parish has begun to reach out ecumenically to other Johnson County Christian Churches to better serve the needs of the poor in its area and that the parishioners have sought to help the victims of the Nov. 7 tornado that struck Evansville, Ind.

“They’ve become a little more sensitive and a little more aware and a little more vocal in actually stepping forward and saying this is what we’d like to do,” she said.

Such ongoing outreach to the poor was what Siler hoped the response to Katrina would inspire in archdiocesan Catholics.

“Hopefully, we’re learning a lot from this tragedy—the fact that the poor need us every day, all of the time, 365 days a year,” he said.

Even in the midst of her own losses, Booker is aware of those more in need than herself. The charity she has received, as well as the faith in God planted in her by her mother, helped Booker be thankful for her blessings, even in this time of tragedy for her family.

“It just gives you hope that you know that there are still people out there that are willing to sacrifice just as much as I would to help someone,” she said. “I know that there are people who are going through worse times than I am. I don’t want my life to seem like it’s [more important than] a lot of other people that have had more devastations than I have had.”

(Those who want to contribute to the archdiocese’s ongoing Katrina relief efforts may send contributions to the archdiocesan Mission Office at P.O. Box 1410, Indianapolis, IN 46206. Information about archdiocesan Catholic Charities Katrina relief efforts can be found at †


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