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Parish returns to home church sanctuary a year after Hurricane Harvey

James Ramos Catholic News Service

Photographer: James Ramos

HOUSTON (CNS) -- The 51 inches of rain had happened almost a year ago, in late August, decimating the Texas Gulf Coast and along with it St. Philip the Apostle Catholic Church in Huffman. The congregation was forced to attend Mass elsewhere for months.

In August, Father Richard Barker vested just as he would for any other Mass, but this time he and his parishioners could gather as a church community in their own church building.

With Auxiliary Bishop George A. Sheltz of Galveston-Houston presiding over the Mass of Homecoming and Return at the northeast Houston church, the pastor of St. Philip the Apostle was finally able to see his fellow parishioners in familiar church pews -- though now replaced -- once again.

The Aug. 12 Mass included a special blessing of the church where Bishop Sheltz sprinkled holy water throughout the church, blessing the renovated building and the parishioners themselves. Like other parishes devastated by Harvey's catastrophic flooding caused by record rainfall -- as many as 61 inches just down the interstate from St. Philip -- the community had celebrated Mass in a nearby event center.

That morning, parishioners shared long embraces and audible gasps as they walked into their renovated sanctuary, many for the first time since they had seen it either flooded or gutted during renovation. Tears were shed during parts of the Mass, including the blessing.

Days after the torrential rainfall from Harvey, which made landfall Aug. 25, 2017, near Corpus Christi, water was released from the Lake Conroe dam some 45 miles away, flooding the San Jacinto River into Lake Houston and the creeks surrounding St. Philip. That unprecedented release has seen a deluge of lawsuits since then. Harvey, its flooding of biblical proportions and the complications it caused claimed the lives of more than 75 people.

At one point during the Mass, Father Barker seemed to beam as he looked out at his parishioners. 

He wasn't thinking about the chest-deep floodwater that rushed into the sanctuary last year and that he waded through to get into the flooded sanctuary to save parish property, or the terrifying floating fire ant colonies he encountered while clinging on to trees to make his way to the church, or 65 crepe myrtle trees he and his physical plant manager trimmed the week before the storm. He said he saw a smiling parishioner looking back at him.

"To see someone in the congregation smiling at me, looking at me and smiling, I can't help but smile back because I can't offer Mass without being connected to the people," Father Barker told the Texas Catholic Herald, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston. "If I lose that connection, I can't speak a word up there. I get so flustered, I stop and I'm so disconnected.

"But if I'm connected to the people, and I have that utter, total, complete, total sense that we're one, we're together -- then I can smile -- and then I won't stumble over the words. Then I can give a homily."

The colorful stained-glass windows shone during the Mass, while hand-carved saint statues, the parish's historic baptismal font, tabernacle and 135-year-old crucifix drew parishioners into deeper worship.

After the Mass, parish staffer Lupe Cupples said the Mass was emotional. Her daughters attended nearby Kingwood High School, which also saw six feet of water. While their home was spared, her daughters quickly realized that both their school and their church were gone.

"There are so many blessings that we had in disguise, and now we're seeing them," she said.

Catechism classes still continued after the storm. A neighboring Christian church that hadn't experienced as much flooding opened its campus to host youth catechism classes as well as choir practice.

"Father (Barker) was steadfast that we had to keep our kids together," said parishioner Brett Richard, who helped with the restoration effort. "We'll do whatever we have to to keep our kids together." He said he was inspired by the efforts of the other churches in the community that worked to help.

"Once they reached a point where they couldn't do anything more, they were coming over here to help us, too," Richard said.

Cupples saw "people of all sorts of faith or no faith at all. Just come and do and donate and give, a lot of giving, of time, of talent, of treasure from all outside the community," come and help. 

"God is multiplying graces and blessings in the midst of his people," said Father Barker after the Mass. "St. Philip's worship area is filled with light, the light of the sun and the light of our joy."

In his homily, Bishop Sheltz congratulated the parishioners on their restored church home and encouraged them to be like Elijah, the prophet who brought others closer to God. "Be a church that is alive, a church that is growing and a church that cares for one another," he said.

Bishop Sheltz also called the congregation to prayer: "May all here today and all those in days to come, who celebrate your mysteries in this church, be united at last in the holy city of your peace."

Father Barker finds that peace in his parish community. "The Lord led Moses through the Red Sea and we came across the Brown River," the priest said. "He stopped Moses at the river, wouldn't let him cross the Jordan. The Lord has let me cross back here with these people. I'm very mindful of Moses in all of this. This is the Promised Land for us. We've reached it."

Nov 16, 2018

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