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UNDER THE HEAVENS


After floodwater rose up the walls of its church along Bayou Liberty, a congregation drifts
outdoors and stands firm each week under a 300-year-old live oak SPEAK UP!
Thursday, November 10, 2005 » Talk about it in the Pet
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her fellow parishioners arrived at St. Genevieve Catholic Church for Mass on Sunday, Mary Bell Now!
Neck greeted them with a large can of insect repellent.
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"Bug spray? The gnats are eating people alive," she warned. "Welcome to the great outdoors." » Pets & Animals
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Unbowed after Hurricane Katrina swamped the picturesque church nestled among the live oaks
along Bayou Liberty near Slidell, the congregation has resorted to holding services outside.

Just two dozen people attended the first Mass nearly two weeks after the Aug. 29 storm. But by
Sunday, the ranks had swelled to more than 400 as the church became a rallying point for the
devastated Bayou Liberty area.

Church members sat on rows of folding chairs on the dusty ground, forming a semicircle around a
battered 300-year-old live oak that lost about a third of its branches during the storm and provided
little respite from the unseasonably warm November sun.

Several potted yellow mums were placed in front of a metal table serving as the altar, and a junked
air-conditioning unit at the back provided auxiliary seating for the overflow crowd.

Neck said the large turnout shows that while many parishioners have lost their homes and their
church, they haven't lost their faith.

"We're sitting out here in the middle of all this devastation, and we're still worshipping God," she
said. "He's still the center of our lives."

Deacon Dan Haggerty said the live oak at the center of Sunday's Mass is the same tree where
services were held more than 100 years ago before the first church was built.

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"In a sense, we've come all the way back to our beginnings," said Haggerty, the Slidell police
chaplain. "It's going to take a lot of hard work, but I think everyone is committed to rebuilding the
church bigger and better."

Back in the fold

Sunday's service marked the return of St. Genevieve's pastor, the Rev. Roel Lungay, who was
recuperating from thyroid surgery in his native Philippines when Katrina struck.

"It's so good to see us all back together as a church and as a family," he said, using a microphone
to be heard above the rumble of cars crossing the drawbridge at the nearby Bayou Liberty Marina,
where a crane dredged marsh grass and mud from the storm-clogged channel.

Lungay said he was on a snorkeling expedition near his hometown of Bohol when he received a
cell-phone text message about the pre-Katrina evacuation. He said he grew frustrated during the
following days as he was unable to get any information about how his congregation and church
had fared. FROM OUR ADVERTISERS
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"Each time I tried to call, I got a recording that said, 'You are calling a disaster area,' " he said. >>
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Lungay said the first news he received was when his brother-in-law found a report on the Internet
that a church steeple had fallen on Bayou Liberty Road. » Advertise With Us

"He asked me if I knew where that was, and I said, 'That's us! That's our church!' " he said. "I was
so excited to hear something that I didn't even think about the damage."

As Lungay prepared to come back, his mother had a stroke and slipped into a coma. He said he
stayed with her at a hospital for several weeks before returning to Slidell last week.

"I was torn between my responsibilities here as a pastor and my responsibilities to my mom," he
told the congregation, pausing to regain his composure. "I've been a priest for 20 years and have
counseled many families dealing with illness and death. But when it comes to your own mom, I
cannot explain."

Although he had seen news coverage of the hurricane on TV, Lungay said it was shocking to see
the storm's aftermath firsthand.

"This is the kind of devastation you expect in poor countries like the Philippines, but not the United
States," he told the congregation.

Church submerged

Katrina's storm surge sent a wall of water from Lake Pontchartrain rushing across southern Slidell,
flooding thousands of homes. Some of the worst destruction was along Bayou Liberty Road, where
virtually every home suffered substantial damage from wind, water or fallen trees.

At St. Genevieve, the church, reception hall and rectory were inundated by more than 4 feet of
water.

The church was filled with 18 inches of muck, but not one of the dozens of stained glass windows
lining three walls was broken. Beneath a sign that reads, "Open wide the doors to Christ," a set of
double doors were swung wide open Sunday to air out the musty church.

All three buildings have been gutted by volunteers from the church, the military and various youth
and church groups from as far away as North Carolina, Haggerty said.

Church member Lee Miltenberger, 69, said the generosity has spilled over into the collection
basket.

"This is not a wealthy congregation, but the donations have really picked up," he said. "It's
amazing to see how people who have lost so much are still willing to share what little they have
left."

Enjoying the outdoors

Although the church isn't expected to be ready for at least a few more months, church leaders plan
to hold Sunday's Mass in the reception hall, where electricity has been restored and two new air-
conditioning units arrived this week. But some parishioners said they hope they haven't seen the
last of church under the oaks.

"It's been great," Nora Begue said. "In fact, maybe we ought to make it a tradition to have Mass
outside whenever the weather is pretty."

Lungay said it doesn't really matter where the service is held as long as the congregation stays
together.

"This is what church is all about -- not the building, but the people," he said as he spread his arms
wide as if to embrace the entire congregation. "We are the church."

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NOLA.com: Pet and Animal Lovers of Greater New Orleans and Southeastern Louisiana ... Page 3 of 3

.......

Paul Rioux can be reached at prioux@timespicayune.com or (985) 645-2852.

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