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Katrina Study Guide

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Dominican Life | USA
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Different Lives Living in the Same World

In some ways, one could not imagine two more different women.

Shirley is a tall black woman with a strong voice and an even stronger countenance.  A now-retired inner-city music teacher, she speaks with great passion for her field and for children. A robust laugh and contagious smile offer a glimpse of the influential educator she must have been.  Lou’s slight figure, pale complexion, and quiet demeanor stand in stark contrast. Her strawberry blonde hair frames a soft face, revealing the calm, gentle character of a grandmother and professional artist.

Even their experiences in the aftermath of Katrina have been markedly different.  Shirley’s family home of more than 40 years – paid for with sweat and sacrifice over time first by her parents, then by Shirley and her sister after their deaths – stands in the abandoned Upper Ninth Ward in an eerie time-warp state, where block after block of homes remain as they were two years ago when the waters first receded from their peak at 13 feet. Living in a cramped apartment in another part of town, Shirley still awaits information as to whether any funding through HUD will be available to replace her home.

Lou’s spacious residence, which she and her husband purchased when they relocated to New Orleans after retiring a few years ago, sits along the river. Soft hues of paint on the walls and imported tiles in the floors mask the fact that not long ago, five feet of water filled the house.  The couple did not begin the renovations to their home until after repairs to their other property – an art studio and three rental apartments were completed.  But, by Thanksgiving time last year, both construction projects were finished.

In spite of their differences, Shirley Stewart and Lou Jordan are friends – and have been for years.  And, their friendship runs deeper than their mutual love of art and their experience of utter devastation in Katrina’s wake. They share a common Catholic faith and a common identity within that faith: they are both Lay Dominicans.  As Dominican Laity, they are members of the international branch of the Dominican Order where lay women and men profess vows and choose to live lives based on the Dominican pillars of prayer, study, community, and preaching.  They are two of about 25 members of the St. Dominic Chapter who have returned to New Orleans to rebuild their communities, their churches, and their lives.  Theirs is a close-knit group that has grown even closer in the wake of the post-Katrina devastation.

Prior to the storm, The St. Dominic Chapter of the Dominican Laity had about 40 members.  They formally met at St. Dominic’s Church on a monthly basis to study, read scripture, pray the Liturgy of the Hours, and support one another as they strived to live out the Dominican ideals in their daily lives.  The disaster that tried each member’s faith individually also tried the Chapter communally; the group not only weathered the storm, but the experiences have strengthened their bonds to one another.

from LEFT: Greg Wright, Maureen Wright, JoAnn Cotterman, Lou Jordan, Shirley Stewart, and Bruce Trigo
The story of each Chapter member is unique.  Maureen and Gregory Wright, moderator and formation director for the Chapter, respectively, lost their home to mold and water damage resulting from the more than nine feet of water that consumed their neighborhood after the levees broke.  In an effort to foster stability for their teenage daughter, they made the difficult choice to purchase a new home, rather than re-build their old one.  Jo Ann Cotterman, vice moderator for the Chapter, said goodbye to her two-story house near the 17th Street Canal before evacuating, but remarkably found upon her return that just a few inches of water had permeated the downstairs.  Fires that burned houses just a block away spared her property, and she was able to move back in without much ceremony.  Situated north of Lake Pontchartrain, provincial moderator Bruce Trigo’s home remained largely undamaged.  Immediately after the storm and even now, he and his wife and children have opened their home to friends and family who were not as lucky as they were.

But as these members of the chapter relate their separate experiences during and after the storm, their stories soon intersect. All express the profound relief they encountered when they were finally able to connect with one another.  “You worry about your Chapter just as you worry about your family,” Jo Ann expresses. As moderator, Maureen tried various times to initiate contact with chapter members through blanket emails.  “I can’t explain the excitement the first time I heard that cell phone ring,” she explains, noting that especially in the beginning, they found they were able to communicate via text message, even as cell phone calling coverage was inconsistent and unreliable.  Little by little, they were able to confirm one another’s whereabouts and begin helping one another as they were able. 

Initially their contact took the form of prayer, support, and just connecting with one another.  As the city opened back up, they were able to accompany one another through the process of returning and discovering the devastation of their homes.  They helped each other in recovering items from their properties and in finding suitable places to stay. At one point, Gregory was one of Bruce’s grateful guests, with a one-month stay that enabled him to continue working in the city and to look for other accommodations while his family remained in a hotel hours away.  Whether in baby steps or in great leaps, they have helped one another in the long recovery effort – physically, emotionally, and spiritually. 

“Being a Lay Dominican, you know you are part of a family,” shares Shirley.  “But you never realize just how big that family is until you experience a disaster like this.”  In recovering from Katrina, Shirley and others found family bonds not only within their chapter, but also in the larger Dominican Family.  She expresses profound gratitude for the prayerful support she has felt and for the concrete gestures of aid she has received, including financial assistance through the Dominican Foundation that has helped her get back on her feet again.  Of greatest treasure and meaning to her is a hand-made quilt she received from Dominicans in California, who sent numerous quilts to Katrina victims in the aftermath of the storm.

As in any strong family, members of the St. Dominic Chapter of the Dominican Laity have seen one another at their best and at their worst.  They have celebrated triumphs together and carried one another through the worst of tragedies.  They share tears with one another as easily as they share laughter, and they are able to be themselves in one another’s presence.  In the company of friends, outspoken Shirley shows her timid, vulnerable side as she describes the fear, frustration, and grief she has endured.  Soft-spoken Lou reveals the strong woman inside her that has made tough decisions and managed two major construction projects in the name of recovery.  Even amid their outward differences, Shirley and Lou – and the whole group of friends – know their common bonds hold them more tightly together than any societal stereotypes.

And so, two years after the disaster, the recovery work continues, personally and communally.  Like so many, members of the St. Dominic Chapter of the Dominican Laity say they have learned what really matters in life, and they count one another and the larger Dominican Family among their most important treasures.  They recognize that not only with the city of New Orleans never be the same, neither will they.  And some of that is not all bad.

Story Contributors: Karen Clay (Columbus) Dusty Farnan, OP (Adrian) and Peggy Ryan, OP (Caldwell)

St. Martin

Beacons of Hope


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" never realize just how big that [Dominican]
family is until you experience a disaster like this.” 

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