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Neighbors Make Good-Faith Effort

Cultures that don't usually mix come together as Catholic churches are restored, one by one, by New Orleans volunteers.

November 06, 2005|Ann M. Simmons | Times Staff Writer

NEW ORLEANS — De Nguyen ripped moldy plaster and pink insulation wool from the walls of the rectory of St. Maria Goretti Catholic Church in the east of this city, while Benedict Willard dumped debris into a wheelbarrow and carted it to a makeshift dump outside. Carl Schmidt tore out dangling light fixtures and helped to coordinate the cleanup.

The three -- relative strangers until Saturday -- worked together as longtime friends. Nguyen, who is Vietnamese; Willard, who is African American; and Schmidt, who is white, shared a common goal: Repair a church that used to be an anchor in this neighborhood.

It is a task that they and other volunteers will repeat in coming weeks at another half-dozen sites as they come together to rebuild battered Roman Catholic churches in New Orleans East and, they hope, give thousands who have fled the area an incentive to return.

"It takes a catastrophe of this magnitude to bring all races and cultures together to work for one cause," said Willard, 41, a criminal district court judge. "I think that's a beautiful thing."

"If we unite, I guess we can rebuild the community faster," added Nguyen, 39, an engineer.

"Every hour of help you get is welcome, no matter what [race] it is from," said Schmidt, 62, a New Orleans East resident for almost four decades.

Hurricane Katrina destroyed the physical structure and punctured the emotional soul of New Orleans on Aug. 29, but it has also helped foster solidarity between ethnic communities that may have had cordial relations before but didn't really mix.

"We were rather isolated," said Father Vien Nguyen, pastor of Mary Queen of Vietnam Catholic Church in the predominantly Vietnamese neighborhood of Versailles in New Orleans East. "We would contact others whenever we had to. We did have some interchange, but limited mainly to business. Now, given the situation, we have to dig deep to our commonality."

"This whole tragic event has laid bare the weakness of a lot of structures: civil, military, national government, and the churches," said Terrel Broussard, a deacon at the predominantly black St. Maria Goretti. "But it has also opened up another side, that of ... helping and caring and trying to make things better, realizing that we are better together than separate."

Schmidt, who has helped maintain St. Maria Goretti for nine years and lives seven blocks from the church, watched as many of his white neighbors began to pull out in the early 1970s as blacks, and then Vietnamese, moved in.

Members of the different racial groups talked, but "we didn't have that commingling," Schmidt said.

In the aftermath of Katrina -- at least in these early days -- that appears to be changing.

"People in your neighborhood that you haven't really made friends with, they come over to borrow a hammer, you don't say, 'Who is it?' You just go get the hammer," Schmidt said.

Members of the Vietnamese community, whose church was spared major damage, are joining forces with African Americans to help rebuild eight churches. The New Orleans East churches primarily serve a middle-class African American community with a large enclave of Vietnamese and a smaller number of longtime white residents.

Katrina ravaged this part of town.

There is still no electricity or potable water across much of New Orleans East, and a large percentage of the houses are uninhabitable. Despite this, Nguyen said members of the 20,000-strong Vietnamese community had started to trickle back to the Versailles neighborhood.

"At this point, we are the only community where people have remained in large numbers," said Nguyen, noting that culturally, Vietnamese have tended to stick together, and about 600 had returned. "We have that critical mass.

"There are a lot of people out there who are waiting. Hopefully, we can help spark other communities to come back.

"By doing this, we are helping ourselves, because New Orleans is a body and we are an arm or a leg -- a part of that body," Nguyen added.

Clergy and residents agreed that restoring the churches was vital because they provided a common gathering place, and were the core of many communities.

"It will help people come back because they will see the church as a sign of unity and hope," said Rob Morgia, associate pastor at St. Maria Goretti.

"If there is a place for people to congregate and celebrate, that provides inspiration for a better future," said Willard, the judge, dressed for work this day in a gray T-shirt and denim shorts.

The push to get the churches back on their feet began during the last weekend in October.

Volunteers plan to gather each Saturday at a parish to clean and prepare the chapel for a service the following day. Nguyen said representatives of the Vietnamese community would join in the prayers.

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