By James Ramos | Catholic News Service
HOUSTON – The 200-home community of McDade Estates down the road from Sacred Heart Parish had just hours to evacuate Aug. 27. City officials knocked door-to-door, alerting residents to escape to higher ground.
Hours later, authorities released historic amounts of water from Lake Conroe as Tropical Storm Harvey continued to flood southeast Texas with as much as 50 inches of rain. Lake Conroe surged past record numbers, forcing city officials to advise more neighborhoods to evacuate as the San Jacinto River churned with floodwaters through Conroe, located 45 miles north of Houston.
Related Video: Priest details devastation in Texas church
Less than three miles away, surrounded by donations of clothes, water and food, Father Philip Wilhite, Sacred Heart Church's pastor, said Red Cross opened an emergency shelter at the parish to house flood victims Aug. 28. The shelter served many of the communities, some less than two miles from the church, flooded by the rising San Jacinto.
Despite the rain, Father Wilhite said "this has been very joyful, to see people come together all in good spirits, doing what we can to help each other."
Sacred Heart joined a number of parishes, including St. Anthony of Padua Parish in The Woodlands, throughout the 10-county Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston that assisted with flood relief as emergency shelters or donation sites Aug. 29. Shelters across the region served thousands of people including a downtown convention center housing about 10,000 people by nightfall.
Father Tom Rafferty, pastor of St. Anthony of Padua, described the response to help as "outstanding" and "generous."
"I try to share with them what the church is, and they're embracing it. You see it all across Houston," he said.
However, Father Norbert Manduzia only had bad news for his parishioners in Spring, closer to Houston. Via Facebook Live, the pastor of St. Ignatius of Loyola Parish showed a church in devastation.
Floodwaters covered the altar floor, nearly reaching the top of some pews.
"All the buildings are flooded," he said in the video. "It's devastated. All the buildings are flooded. I'm standing inside the church now. I'm just speechless. Everything is lost."
Walking back to the narthex, he showed that the "baptismal font meets the floor and the water."
At one point in the video, Father Manduzia picks up the parish processional cross, face down in the water. The corpus then breaks off and floats for a few seconds until Father Khoi Le, parochial vicar, picks it up and places it on a nearby table. The video, viewed more than 300,000 times, shows the clergy and staff saving vestments and other parish property.
Elsewhere, the Discalced Carmelite Nuns of New Caney, Texas said they are praying for Harvey flood victims and aid workers.
"We have been praying every minute for all the people in the Archdiocese and the people in Texas, especially for those seeking shelter and for those who are helping them," Sister Angel Teresa Sweeney, superior of the contemplative community. The small convent, located 37 miles northwest of Houston, found itself less than three miles from a major 12-mile stretch of I-69 that was closed because of high water.
Sister Sweeney said the convent saw 23 inches of rain that caused nearby Peach Creek to rise to a record height, flooding nearby homes. But after seeing damage from the 2016 Tax Day Flood, the seven sisters readied their property with a pump and equipment to handle floodwater, which Sister Sweeney said worked steadily.
In Richmond, Texas, 30 miles southwest of Houston, Sacred Heart Parish served as a shelter until the Brazos River also began to flow past its banks. The parish closed after authorities ordered mandatory evacuations for much of Fort Bend County. The river was expected to rise through Aug. 31, cresting at 57.5 feet, 42 feet above normal.
Near Galveston Island, in Dickinson, one of the hardest hit communities, The Shrine of the True Cross Parish and School was inundated by at least four feet of water. The parish sits less than 500 feet from Dickinson Bayou and is home to a relic of the True Cross, which church officials said was safe. Photos show the submerged parish campus, including a grotto with a statue of the Mary just above the waterline.
Archdiocesan representatives said damage at parishes continued to be assessed as major roadways and communities still remain flooded Aug. 29.
Harvey remained a deadly storm Aug. 30, keeping several counties under storm and surge warnings with 'historic river and bayou flooding,' according to the National Hurricane Center. The storm has claimed at least 15 fatalities in region.
Ramos is a staff writer and designer for the Texas Catholic Herald, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston.