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Being Eucharist in a Hungry City

Diane Hooley, OP, is devoted to very vulnerable people, in a service surrounded by an almost unimaginable situation. She is a hospice chaplain, a spiritual companion to people who are facing their own death in a city that is itself trying to come back from the brink of death after Hurricane Katrina.

Diane, and chaplain Alberta Schindler, OP,  works for Serenity Hospice Center, a small private hospice service through which they are companions for people in the throes of terminal illness, who are on the ultimate life journey. Diane cares for the spiritual and pastoral well being of people who, in some cases, lost everything they had in the hurricane, and then have to face the final most personal loss of all. Their loved ones receive the support and care of these Dominican sisters who help them make it through the loss of someone they love.

As a Eucharistic Missionary of St. Dominic, Diane brings a missionary’s heart to a city that looks like a war zone in many places. Whole neighborhoods stand empty, decaying and dark. City services are sparse, mail service in some sections, non- existent. FEMA trailers stand on the front lawns of homes that look abandoned, but hold some measure of promised rebirth. Other parts of the city look almost normal, if you discount the noticeable number of houses with scaffolding or great sheets of blue tarp covering roofs or sides of buildings. Don’t let the Superdome or the French Quarter fool you -- New Orleans is not back to normal, by any stretch of the imagination.

Today, there are five Eucharistic Missionary Dominicans working in New Orleans. The affectionate shorthand for their congregation is "EMDs". They are five of 33 members of the congregation of Dominicans whose lives were altered forever by the breach in the levees in August of 2005.  Other EMDs in New Orleans include Noel Toomey, OP, who is a spiritual director at the archdiocese of New Orleans and Kathy Brussard, OP, who is a forensic social worker, a person who assesses the needs of people who are convicted of a capital crime.Suzanne Brauer, OP is also an EMD who serves on the congregation’s leadership team as treasurer and at St. Paul the Apostle Parish in New Orleans East.

Diane and Alberta see about 70 patients, a little more than half of them in a nearby nursing home. The rest of the hospice patients are in their homes. Many of them are senior citizens who have lost their homes and cannot talk about the loss; some cannot even look at where the remains of their homes stand. Still others are traumatized just to hear an occasional heavy rainstorm on the roof. The stress of Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath has increased the death rate.  People are hungry for what feels like normal, are hungry to know how’d you do? --  the greeting many returning residents use to catch up with friends and get news of progress. Social conversation is about recovery, about FEMA, about forms and applications for services.

“No words make this easy,” Diane said. “I am learning to have the same faith as people here.” Diane described a heartbreaking story of a family whose four-year-old child is terminally ill, the father is in a wheelchair after a motorcycle accident. One child had already died of a congenital illness.  They live in a one bedroom FEMA trailer. This is missionary territory.  The missionary takes up the task where the work is needed. Thus, the Eucharistic Missionaries are alive and well in New Orleans.

The FEMA trailer family did not have money for a funeral, and friends and neighbors pitched in. This is the story of New Orleans now -- friends and neighbors are helping each other with the added encouragement of volunteers from around the country. You get the feeling the city government is in a semi-comatose state, overwhelmed by red tape, lack of personnel and mismanagement. Other solutions are emerging slowly, very slowly.

Dying is hard enough, but the idea of a dying child in a one bedroom FEMA trailer escapes your imagination. The child’s father is in a wheelchair after a motorcycle accident.  How does one maneuver a wheelchair in a one bedroom trailer? Diane shows up just to check in, to listen, to visit, to pray, to let them know they are not alone. Her presence feeds a soul like Eucharist.

Diane reflects on the faith of the people she encounters and recognizes that many good gifts come their way in the form of prayer, emotional support, physical support, and volunteers who help rebuild. They all express tremendous gratitude.  Everyone recognizes that there is always someone else they will meet who suffered more or who lost more. And the devastation of the city is still more than evident there, everyday. You cannot miss it.

Thank God the Dominicans are still there.

Anne Lythgoe, OP (Catherine de' Ricci), formerly Elkins Park


Her presence feeds
a soul like Eucharist.


Where are they now?

Home Is Where Your Heart Is

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