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Spirituality Center Keeps its focus on recovery and hope

Telling the Story

In the midst of the Hurricane Katrina aftermath, there in the flooded basement offices of the Spirituality Center at Notre Dame Seminary, sat a small Pueblo clay “storyteller” figurine virtually untouched as if to proclaim that Sr. Noel Toomey, OP, and others at the center should continue their ministry and keep “telling the story.”

“As Dominicans, as preachers, we need to keep reverencing the story but help people focus on what’s the blessing right now,” said Sr. Noel, a Eucharistic Missionary who is in her 25th year as the center’s director.

Noel Toomey, OP (EMD) tells her story of Katrina
The story, by now everyone knows. On August. 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit the city of New Orleans causing a breach in the levees submerging 80 percent of the city in floodwaters. What is hard to see in the devastation still evident two years later is the blessing, but Sr. Noel encourages everyone to seek it.

“The wonderful thing in all this sadness is the feeling of what’s important … What lasts and what drifts away – that’s the preaching gift through the disaster,” she said.

Despite losing 25 years of her classroom notes and professional resources as well as many personal items in the offices, Sr. Noel doesn’t look at what was lost but what was gained by the center in the storm’s aftermath. “We’ve come out very well,” she said. The center was moved from the basement of a building at Notre Dame Seminary to the second floor of a building next door. This is the result of a lesson the seminary learned from the devastation … a classroom with chairs and tables can be replaced much easier than offices with years of notes and personal items. What once served as a chapel now serves as teaching and office areas for the center. It is a “much nicer space than before,” according to Sr. Noel.

Flood insurance covered the actual structure of the building, but not the contents. Sr. Noel and the staff at the Spirituality Center were left to rely on the generosity of others for items necessary to continue the ministry – another blessing.

The Spirituality Center offices are coming back to their former strength

“Everything inside had to be replaced but the generosity of people brought us pretty close to where we were before,” she said.

Through the assistance of Notre Dame, Ava Maria Press donated books to the center providing “better contemporary spirituality resources” than they had before the storm. Thanks to the generosity of others, the new books are stored on nine new bookcases.

Even though the offices themselves have changed at the Spirituality Center, their work continues as before. But, Sr. Noel said, the experience of Katrina didn’t change the ministry as much as add a new dimension as people began to rebuild their lives and homes. People need someone to talk to not just about their spiritual direction, but what they experienced during the ordeal, Sr. Noel said. The center provides that listening ear for those still dealing with the effects of Katrina.

“I didn’t cry over the devastation, I cried over the experience of people,” Sr. Noel said as she recounted stories of those she’s spoken with since returning to New Orleans in October 2005.

She told the story of a former student who is now a chaplain for the New Orleans Police Department. Haunted by gruesome images of people he tried to rescue, their pleading voices played ceaselessly in his head as he struggled to sleep at night. She told him: “You’ll never lose those images, but you also need to keep the pictures of life and hope you made possible.” Pictures like that of a week-old baby he found turning blue in its screaming mother’s hand, its tiny arms hanging limp. He knew that infant was dying or already dead, but carefully he breathed into its mouth and gently as he could, pressed two fingers on its fragile chest, almost futilely urging it to come back. Finally, he saw a little arm pop up, and the child began breathing on its own. Sr. Noel urged him to always remember that little arm popping up showing signs of life.

Stories like this one are too numerous to count, but they must be told, Sr. Noel said. “People can’t forget the stories of sadness because it is out of those stories that the blessings come.”

Just like that clay storyteller figurine, Sr. Noel and the others at the Spirituality Center made it through the storm so they can continue to tell their story.

Contributors: Dana Lear Brantley (Kentucky), Jean Mullolly (Racine) , Elaine Osborne, OP (Great Bend) Rebecca Peak (Great Bend)

"We need to keep reverencing the story but help people focus on what’s the blessing right now."
Noel Toomey, OP (EMD)

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Eucharist in a Hungry City
Read about another Eucharistic Missionary of St. Dominic: Diane Hooley, OP.

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