[StBernard] Storm-damaged churches recovering slowly

Westley Annis westley at da-parish.com
Mon Jul 30 22:55:18 EDT 2007

Storm-damaged churches recovering slowly
Posted by The Times-Picayune July 29, 2007 10:10PM
By Bruce Nolan
Staff writer

Nearly two years after Hurricane Katrina, members of Rayne United Methodist
Church, a 132-year-old bastion of mainline Protestant culture on St. Charles
Avenue, finally moved back into their storm-damaged sanctuary last weekend,
even as masons continued substantial repairs to the church's toppled brick

Meanwhile, in Algiers, contractors are just starting what promises to be at
least nine months of work and more than $2 million in repairs and expansion
to Life Center Cathedral, where 1,000 people still gather in a tent.

So it goes across the New Orleans area, where the recovery of about 1,500
damaged churches and other houses of worship has slowed to the same hard
slog that mirrors the recovery in general, according to a church

Still, the members of Rayne Memorial and Life Center Cathedral are in better
shape than many. Even if their buildings were damaged, those congregations
have remained intact -- if diminished -- as nourishing faith communities.

By contrast, the most recent numbers compiled by Bill Day of the New Orleans
Baptist Theological Seminary indicate that by the end of April, about 30
percent of congregations in Orleans, Jefferson, St. Tammany, St. Bernard and
Plaquemines parishes still appeared to be missing from the post-storm

In the hardest-hit parishes of Orleans, Plaquemines and St. Bernard, 43
percent of pre-Katrina congregations have not returned, according to Day's

That represents slow improvement in the eight months since Day's previous
benchmark, the one-year anniversary of Katrina. At that time Day estimated
that only 47 percent of congregations in those hard-hit parishes were
meeting; now it's 57 percent.

Moreover, it appears across the board that surviving congregations have lost
significant fractions of their members. Day said it was not uncommon to see
surviving congregations functioning at two-thirds of their former strength.

Although local churches have received considerable rebuilding aid from other
churches across the country, Day said their continuing struggle no doubt
reflects a hardship that construction dollars can't erase: the relative
depopulation of many areas, especially St. Bernard and lower Plaquemines

For instance, Day's research teams of seminary students counted only 28 of
56 prestorm churches open in St. Bernard Parish, and 29 of 49 pre-Katrina
churches open in Plaquemines Parish.

In many cases Katrina proved to be a brutal winnowing, decisively killing
off small institutions that were prosperous a generation ago, before they
lost their vitality because of population shifts or an inability to attract
younger members.

The wreckage of the post-Katrina landscape has forced major denominations to
cluster many surviving congregations together for mutual sustenance until
their prospects for recovery become clearer.

To varying degrees, both Catholic and Methodist officials have pursued that
strategy with almost 80 damaged congregations in their two denominations.

Starting this fall, the Archdiocese of New Orleans will systematically
revisit a 2006 plan that closed eight parishes or missions and clustered
another 20 badly damaged parishes around 17 viable churches. Although empty,
those damaged parishes are still technically open, and Day's method counts
them open, even though no Catholic worship or ministry occurs in those

In time, the archdiocese will have to decide which parishes have
sufficiently repopulated to warrant resuming operations, and which will have
to merge or close permanently.

Similarly, about three dozen damaged Methodist churches in 2006 were grouped
into seven clusters -- recently reduced to three -- in a plan in which
church members and pastors try to chart their futures in a bottoms-up
planning process, said the Rev. Martha Orphe, who is helping supervise the

In the case of the Methodist churches, five congregations have voted to
close under the plan; two pairs of congregations, Shaw Temple and Brooks
United Methodist churches, and Grace and First Methodist of New Orleans, are
actively exploring merger, Orphe said.

In the coming months, church officials and church members might decide to
close still more congregations, officials said. But in many cases, that
means churches are free to reinvent and perhaps revitalize themselves in
light of new circumstances, Orphe said.

"I have hope," she said. "I do, I do."

Urban planners and civic leaders generally think the recovery of churches,
synagogues and mosques both reflects and ignites a neighborhood's recovery.

It is a reflection because a neighborhood or region must support some
critical mass of residents for some to come together to revitalize a dormant
congregation or renovate a damaged building.

And it can lead a local recovery because places of worship can become
centers for dispensing tangible services such as day care, and vital
intangibles such as rebuilding information and networking.

Day, who is associate director of the Baptist seminary's Leavell Center for
Evangelism and Church Health, apparently is the only researcher compiling
statistics on the rate of churches' recovery.

Significantly, his research counts congregations, not buildings.

Day's ground-level method sends teams of seminary students to the addresses
of 1,508 pre-Katrina churches in search of evidence of continuing life.

Because hundreds of displaced congregations still worship in borrowed
churches or makeshift temporary locations, research teams ask neighbors
whether members of a ruined church building are meeting elsewhere. They look
for signs directing returning members to a temporary site.

Day said he counts the church as open if teams learn that the congregation
is meeting somewhere in the metro area, even if its building is still

Thus he counts the wrecked Franklin Avenue Baptist Church as open because a
remnant of its former congregation of 8,000 still meets in the borrowed
First Baptist Church of New Orleans. Repairs at Franklin Avenue have just
begun, said the Rev. Gary Mack, the church's family-life pastor.

A potential weakness in Day's method is that it might count a church as
closed if a team's on-the-ground inquiry misses the fact that its
congregation is alive elsewhere. But Day said he does not think that has
occurred enough to seriously skew the numbers.

Day said he hopes his research in time will yield answers on how the
interplay of factors such as physical damage, insurance shortfalls,
neighborhood vitality and denominational affiliation shape a congregation's
prospects for survival.

Bruce Nolan can be reached at bnolan at timespicayune.com or (504) 826-3344

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