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From left: Sister Mary Keefe, OP (Adrian), organizer of Nuns Build, with volunteers who received engraved hammers for participating in all four Nuns Build projects.

Nuns Build
Fourth annual event helps New Orleans homeowners

“There are nearly 7,000 families still living in FEMA trailers or other temporary housing. Whenever a home is completed and ready to be turned back to the family, the volunteers participate in a ‘Homecoming’ with ribbon cutting, comments by the family and lunch from a local restaurant that trains young people for employment. We experience this event first-hand. It’s all about community building.”

—Sister Sharon Yount (Hope)

This year marked the sixth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, and the fourth anniversary of the annual Nuns Build in November, initiated by Sister Mary Keefe, an Adrian Dominican who viewed the devastation in St. Bernard Parish and was determined to do something about it. Each year since then, she has recruited volunteers, arranged airport transportation, organized living accommodations, led orientation meetings, and assigned worksite placements.

This year's Nuns Build took place Nov. 14–17. Volunteers included 45 sisters and 50 lay people. Dominican Sisters of Adrian, Amityville, Hope, Peace and San Rafael submitted photos and information for this article.

The Gathering Place: Our Nuns Build Journey
by Cindy Carver, OPA (Dominican Sisters of Peace Associate)

Many emotions and images flow through my mind as I reflect on this past week’s Nuns Build experience. I recall our energy as my husband, Randy; our 15-year-old son, Ran, and I packed our Toyota van, Catherine the Sienna (named by two of our Associates after the Associates’ Retreat in Kansas), and began our trip from Lindale, Texas, to New Orleans. Ran’s high school had given us permission to take him on the trip provided that Ran would take the week’s school work for his classes with him and have it completed by the following Monday upon his return. Knowing that he would need to physically work during the day and then work diligently during the evening on homework, and could visit with his cousins during in-between times, Ran was confident that he was up for the challenge. Being that I am a native of New Orleans, we do have family in the area. Most of them had evacuated the city and came to live with/near us in Texas for the year following Katrina, after which they moved back to resume work.

From left: Randy and Cindy Carver with Sisters Joan Mary, OP (Adrian), Eunice Drazba, OP (Adrian)

We had made this trip so very many times before, and yet this time was quite different from the others; now, we were traveling as a family with the goal of assisting a family (who we did not know) return to their home six years after Katrina had wreaked its devastation. Unimaginable! Coupled with the uncertainty of what would be asked of us and whether we could do a good job, and with again facing the tremendous loss caused by Katrina, we became gently cloaked with a more somber mood as we progressed down the highway. Little did we realize, however, that the actual building of homes would be but one part of the trip’s mission.

We arrived in New Orleans and proceeded to our host house where we would be living for the week. How wonderful and warm was our welcome as we were greeted, literally with open arms by our Dominican Sisters of Peace and an Associate of Peace on Bancroft Avenue! The Bancroft home is the home located on a hill, facing Bayou St. John, and survived Katrina due to the fact that is built on ground higher than much of the surrounding area. We learned that three more volunteers, three Amityville Dominicans (two sisters and one associate), would be joining us at this house, and the six of us were to travel together to and from our mutual worksite in St. Bernard Parish.

Marlene Schemmel, CSJ, and Sharon Yount, OP (Hope) apply Kilz, part of the mold remediation process

At our orientation meeting, Sister Mary Keefe (Nuns Build founder and coordinator), asked me to stand before the group as a representative of The Dominican Sisters of Peace and The Dominican Associates of Peace as she announced that each Nuns Build volunteer was being supported and mentioned by name in prayer, by members of our community. She informed the group that our community was providing prayer partners for them as well as offering up an entire Day of Prayer during which each hour, a sister or associate would pray that hour specifically for Nuns Build. Later during the meeting, any group present who wanted to make a financial contribution was invited to come forward and do so. At this time I presented Nuns Build with the gift cards that were sent by our community. Sister Gemma Doll will soon make a trip to New Orleans at which time she will present Sr. Mary with the cash donations that were collected.

I cannot overstate the gratitude that was extended to our community by the St. Bernard Project, Nuns Build, and the volunteers present! For the next five days, we six, in addition to eight other volunteers assigned to the same worksite, a small three-bedroom home, along with our two supervisors (16 in all), commenced work. To say that we were on top of each other does not even begin to depict the actuality of our situation. And so we cut and installed sheetrock, taped, mudded, sanded, patched, sanded again, skimmed, sanded again, skimmed again, sanded again, cleaned, primed, textured and painted. Division of labor became crucial, and so, early on we divided to try to conquer. As we later learned, nine homes were being worked on simultaneously, and, I believe the largest group in Nuns Build history had arrived to work—95 volunteers representing more than 10 religious communities!

The activity on our house was fast-paced and even at times hectic. One of my jobs, partly because I had the transportation, and partly because I might not have been as terribly efficient at physical labor as some of the others, was to run errands. Several times, I was asked to pick up essentials that were immediately needed. Now, it’s important to note that after our van was named, a prayer was lifted, that all who traveled in this van would be safe and would receive many blessings. It was only in retrospect that I was able to see what a role our little van and of course our patron, Catherine of Sienna, who I am sure was overseeing all, would play during our trip. Without fail, on a daily basis, someone would ask to ride with me on one of the day's errands, and without fail, would take the opportunity to either discuss something that was weighing heavily on their mind, or simply vent about something that they were experiencing. Our van, Catherine, provided the venue which allowed people to momentarily set themselves apart and just “be” with each other and for each other. We found that on the days when we needed to make a lunch run, a group might choose to remain in the van, windows down, eating and sharing (as is the New Orleans way—share a meal and a story).

Dominican Sisters of Amityville (left) with other volunteers

Within our group of six, on our way to and from our worksite, we retold the Katrina experience as seen from each of our unique perspectives, and we also shared our personal story of what brought us to “this place at this time.” On one particularly long day, when it seemed that everything that could possibly go wrong at the worksite in fact did, we six poured ourselves into our van and knew that we would either have to laugh or cry—some emotion was imminent—we chose laughter that day. From the moment the engine was started until we arrived at the door of our temporary home, the conversation, the teasing and general bonding between relaxed, comfortable friends commenced.

There was another day, one on which activities at the worksite went well. We got “home” and readied ourselves for an appreciation dinner that evening. The dinner and the fellowship were wonderful, as were the presentations that followed—although they were wonderful in quiet a different way. We saw a slide presentation which was narrated and which drew us to the core of what we were doing and why we were there. We heard presentations from Liz McCartney and Zack Rosenburg, the founders of The St. Bernard Project (of which Nuns Build is one part), and from Sister Mary Keefe, founder of Nuns Build, and presentations of the personal experiences of victims of Katrina. That evening, we slowly and mostly quietly, with only a few whispers to each other, placed ourselves into our van. During the ride home, the depth of feeling was permeable, and we knew we were united in purpose. I am confident that our patron and mother, Catherine, was with us during this trip; and that our little van, possessing (certainly with no disrespect ever intended) such a great name, became somewhat of a holy gathering place were all were welcome to be and share themselves as each felt called.

For more information about the St. Bernard Project, visit their web site at www.stbernardproject.org.