By Shelley Grieshop
As the Rev. Bart Pax began to prepare for the 10 a.m. Mass on Sunday, he looked around the church and noticed no one had come.
"That was a good sign," says the pastor of St. Mary of the Angels in downtown New Orleans.
He was relieved to know the 500 or so active members of his congregation were likely packing or heading away from Hurricane Katrina as it approached the Gulf Coast and the city that lies vulnerably seven feet below sea level.
"I knew from past experience there would be people coming to the church for shelter, so I stayed. The church has always been the place of refuge," says the 64-year-old Catholic priest, who recently shared his story during a brief visit in Celina with family members.
Pax, a Franciscan priest who grew up in rural Celina with eight brothers, escaped his flooded neighborhood in a basket dangling from a rescue helicopter but not until enduring four sultry days waiting for help to arrive. He was not alone. As the water began to rise on Monday morning, Aug. 29, about 70 people -- including many small children -- made their way through the flooded streets to the church's three-story school building. By the time helicopters rescued the last person from the school's rooftop that Friday, more than 200 people had converged at the school, Pax says.
One man died before help arrived.
When a nearby levee broke shortly after Katrina hit, water engulfed the first floor of the school, forcing people of all ages to the third floor and roof.
"At 5:30 (a.m.) Monday we could see the clear rainwater in the street, by 6:30 it was coming up the steps and by 7 it was flowing in the front door," Pax says. "By 10, the water was 12 foot high inside."
In preparation that Sunday, he brought to the school three loaves of bread, some peanut butter and jelly and 48 small bottles of water from the rectory. By Tuesday, he went back to the rectory through 6-foot-high water for more supplies. He kept his head dry by using wood planks that had floated down the street from a housing construction project.
"The water was muddy, dirty and slimy, but it really didn't smell too bad at first," he says.
By Thursday, nearly everyone slept on the roof in hopes of catching a fresh breeze that was not contaminated from the stink of the water below, he explains.
Some of the families had brought some food with them and one man had a propane tank and burner that the group used to prepare an actual meal.
"We made gumbo on the roof," Pax says with a laugh, explaining how a mix of different foods became a potluck dinner for all.
Not many of those who stayed at the school were from the church's congregation. By midweek, there were more than 100 people taking shelter there including a woman on oxygen who wasn't doing well.
One man in his 80s passed away on Tuesday, likely from dehydration, Pax believes. They feared the body would decay quickly in the humid air, so it was wrapped in plastic. When the Coast Guard helicopter hovered over the school for the first time on Wednesday, rescuers refused to take the deceased man. They were only doing live rescues.
A decision had to be made to prevent health problems from the decomposing corpse.
"We prayed and then put the body in the water and left it float out the front door," Pax says. "It was all we could do."
Waiting was difficult. They heard helicopters above them as early as Monday but none stopped at the school. On Tuesday, the Coast Guard dropped them a few bottles of water, "but it didn't go far," Pax says.
Wednesday was a critical day, he could see the despair in the children's eyes and was delighted when Red Cross and Coast Guard choppers finally began removing people, a few at a time. One of his parishioners asked him to speak to the people as they waited their turn.
"I went around and prayed with many of them. They are very faithful people," he says in his soft-spoken voice. "But still, there was a sense that something could have been done sooner to help us."
One woman joined them on Tuesday with her husband and three children, including a 3-week-old infant. The family stayed just one night then returned to their nearby home. The woman later told Pax she had slept on her porch, shooing away shrimp as they washed up through the night.
Pax was feeling ill by Thursday and finally gave in to an offer to leave. He and others were taken to the Interstate 10 causeway, a staging area, where they waited for two to three hours before boarding buses to Houston, Texas. Turned away at the Astrodome, they ended up at a nearby high school where they were offered bathroom facilities -- even showers -- for the first time in four days.
At 2 a.m. Friday, a Houston-area priest and a longtime friend of Pax, picked him up.
His once snow-white hair has turned a tint of brown. A lack of water and/or the chemicals in the air may have caused the phenomena, he was told. Despite his experience, he is already on his way back to the church where he has served for 12 years. He hopes to restore the concrete walls of God's house and school, he says.
Until he's allowed to enter the city, he'll likely commute back and forth from Catholic communities in Mississippi, searching for his parishioners at shelters and reminding them the Lord hasn't forgotten them.
"My goal is to clean my church and start over," he says.