[StBernard] Hand of God' held deacon, wife safely in flood

Westley Annis westley at da-parish.com
Mon Aug 28 21:33:50 EDT 2006

Hand of God' held deacon, wife safely in flood

By Peter Finney Jr.
Clarion Herald

CHALMETTE, La. (Clarion Herald) - For Bernice Rhodes, the 75-year-old wife
of Deacon Frank Rhodes, swimming was not an option because she can't even

But there she and her 74-year-old husband were - in the early-morning hours
of Aug. 29, 2005 - in the middle of Prince of Peace Church in Chalmette,
which was filling up like the Titanic.

At first, the water seeped under the church doors in a trickle. A few
minutes later, it flowed in from all entrances. Minutes later, Deacon Rhodes
and his wife moved to the elevated sanctuary, and he suggested they strap on
the life jackets he had brought in case of emergency.

If only this were a bad movie. Deacon Rhodes remembers looking out of one of
the church windows and seeing the water midway up the glass while the water
inside the church was much lower. That meant only one thing: the windows
were ready to burst.

And then it happened. The pressure from the surging water blew out the
windows, and now he and Bernice, who could not swim, literally were swimming
for their lives.

The last time the couple, married for 55 years, had swum together was 45
years ago when Deacon Rhodes took Bernice on a summer fishing trip and she
jumped into a shallow pond wearing a life preserver.

Now the couple was fighting to swim out of the church because if they
remained inside, it probably meant they would die.

"I told Bernice, 'We've got to get out of here because nobody knows we're
here and we might get trapped,'" Deacon Rhodes said. "The water was so high
we had to duck our heads to go outside."

Once they floated outside, the horizontal rain pounded their faces with such
force "it felt like sand blowing against your face," Deacon Rhodes said.

The couple held tightly to the gutters and maneuvered their hands to move to
the side of the church that was protected against the rain and the wind.

"Once or twice I tried to push her up onto the roof, but the life preservers
made it difficult to push against," Deacon Rhodes said. "Once or twice she
just rested in my arms. She was asking me, 'How are we going to get onto the
roof?' I just figured when the water got high enough, we would just roll
onto the roof."

The water kept climbing, and the couple crawled onto the roof behind an air
handling unit, protected from the worst of the wind. Then they waited about
12 hours to be rescued by a man in a private boat.

Even now, 12 months after the traumatic experience, Deacon Rhodes and his
wife cling to their faith as tightly as they did to the church gutters.

"When we were hanging on to the side of the church, God's hand was holding
us there, my friend," Deacon Rhodes said. "There's no two ways about it. We
saw different things float by - trash and big cargo containers that were
three-quarters submerged. It would not have taken much for us to be blown
someplace else. We were in God's hands when the thing started, and we're
still in God's hands."

Deacon Rhodes and Bernice had lived in their Arabi house for 51 years. It
sustained 27 inches of flooding from Hurricane Betsy, but it got water above
the ceiling during Hurricane Katrina.

"By comparison, you could say Betsy was almost like dew on the grass,"
Deacon Rhodes said.

The couple had not evacuated for Betsy, and they didn't expect Katrina to be
more than a two- or three-day inconvenience. Deacon Rhodes said another
reason they stayed was to look after Prince of Peace Church. Their pastor,
Father Paul Van Tung Nguyen, is a Navy chaplain and had been called up for
active duty in Iraq just before the storm.

Deacon Rhodes and his wife secured the Blessed Sacrament in two zippered
plastic bags, and they took the sacramental registers into the church for
safekeeping. But when the water flowed in, the pews were lifted and swirled
into a vortex. Everything slipped out of Deacon Rhodes' hands.

A few weeks after the storm, Msgr. Frank Lipps went through the mudcaked
church and found both the Blessed Sacrament - still dry - and the record
books. He was able to properly dispose of the Blessed Sacrament, and the
records were handed over to the archdiocesan archives, which had them
cleaned and freeze-dried to kill any active mold spores. The records are

A few weeks later, parishioner found the monstrance used for eucharistic
adoration in the chapel, and Father Mark Lomax, the dean of the St. Bernard
Deanery, sent it off to be replated. After a stunning restoration, the
monstrance will be on loan to St. Dominic for use in its adoration chapel in
Aquinas Hall. That's because St. Dominic's regular monstrance - dubbed the
Hope Monstrance - was restored and then blessed by Pope Benedict XVI for use
across the archdiocese over the next year.

Deacon Rhodes said during the worst of the storm, he and his wife agreed
that if one of them did not make it through, the surviving spouse should not
feel guilty.

"We said, 'If one of us doesn't make it, we did everything we were supposed
to,'" Deacon Rhodes said. "Neither one of us was going to blame the other if
we didn't make it."

The couple's odyssey went from Gretna to Camp Gruber, Okla., to Tulsa to
Eufala, Okla., and then to Lafayette, La. At the Red Cross shelter set up at
Camp Gruber, a couple named Joe and Lynne Carrier drove them to Tulsa and
provided clothes, food and a place to stay. Three other women drove them
around town to pick up glasses and medications. Then when the Carriers went
out of town to attend a wedding, they gave Deacon Rhodes and his wife the
keys to their house in Eufala and an SUV to use.

"It's unbelievable how we were cared for," Deacon Rhodes said.

Knowing they could not return to Arabi, the couple purchased a home in
Denham Springs, and Deacon Rhodes is preparing to resume his ministry as a
deacon at Immaculate Conception Church in the Baton Rouge Diocese.

"I guess I do think about it a lot, but I try not to dwell on it," Deacon
Rhodes said. "We lost everything but the clothes on our backs. We miss
Prince of Peace parish. We miss St. Bernard. We miss our friends. But when
you stand back and look at what God has done for us, it's amazing."

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