By Lois Rogers | Correspondent
Nearly five years have passed since countless residents of the Trenton Diocese were hit by the maelstrom of Superstorm Sandy.
But memories of the way people across the nation came to their aid were at the forefront Sept. 2-3 as parishioners around the Diocese dug into their pockets and purses for a special collection to aid millions battered by Hurricane Harvey. The collection was requested Aug. 28 by Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M. even as the remnants of Hurricane Harvey continued to devastate Texas, Louisiana and surrounding areas.
“We who live in New Jersey are no strangers to the wrath of nature. The devastation of Hurricane Sandy lingers in our memories, the effects of which are still visible in places along our coastline,” the Bishop said. “Please be generous and keep our sisters and brothers affected by the storm in your good prayers.”
Many faithful said they saw the collection as a reflection of an ongoing effort to “pay it forward” for all the sweat equity, emergency supplies, support and good faith tendered by caring strangers in a time of profound trouble. Others came to church bursting with ideas to share ways their parish could continue to help those affected by Harvey.
And as Labor Day weekend drew to a close, still others were not only focused on Harvey, but also keeping wary eyes on the path of Hurricane Irma, aware that help will soon be needed in its wake, too.
Able to Relate
As Msgr. R. Vincent Gartland described it in his homily for the World Day of Care for Creation Sept. 3, sometimes the brightly colored maps television weather forecasters use to chart the path of disasters come to life in terrible, unpredictable ways.
That was exactly the case Aug. 25, when Hurricane Harvey hit the Texas Gulf Coast with lashing winds and flooding rains, Msgr. Gartland told parishioners in Titusville’s St. George Church, where he serves as weekend assistant. Broadcast live on television, it was “the moment the storm became real” to millions of viewers across the nation, he said.
While the immediate dangers faced by thousands who sought shelter were apparent, Msgr. Gartland urged his listeners to consider the vast destruction beneath the waters as they asked themselves, “what do we do? How do we help?”
“The answer is that we do the best we can from where we are,” he said, noting that the second collection of the day would be sent to the dioceses impacted by the storm.
In Visitation Parish, Brick, where some of the most severe damage of Superstorm Sandy occurred in October 2012, it was clear Father Edward H. Blanchett, pastor, and the hundreds in the pews for the Saturday night Vigil Mass were indeed planning to do the best they could to help.
“As we look in shock at the pictures coming in from Texas and Louisiana, it’s bringing back painful memories of five years ago to us,” said Father Blanchett. “But we can help bring some Good News even in such a terrible situation.”
“Whether we [have recovered] from the crosses of Sandy or not, many of us saw the face of Jesus in the care that others gave to us. They didn’t save us from the trouble. They couldn’t. But they helped us and because of them, we got through.”
“That is how we should respond to others in their time of need, with our love and in any other way which may present itself,” he said.
Indeed, Christie Winters, parish youth ministry leader and director of the Visitation Relief Center, said the nonprofit has been networking with Brick Township’s Clergy Association and will soon start taking donations that will be shipped via container to the affected areas.
Currently operating out of a storefront in the Laurel Square Plaza on Route 88 until its facility on Mantoloking Road meets building codes, the relief center – now known as SOS – was founded at Visitation Parish to help meet the needs of those impacted by Sandy.
“We want to help collectively,” said Winters, who hopes the container will be ready to depart for Texas by mid-October.
Reflecting on Hurricane Harvey, Visitation parishioner Kathleen Cifelli, who opened her undamaged home to neighbors without water and electricity in the days following Superstorm Sandy, said she noticed people going into action around the parish right away. From children operating a lemonade stand to giving to the Bishop’s collection, she said, “everyone is willing to step up to the plate.”
“The number one reason is that we’ve gone through it. The number two reason is it’s the Christian thing to do. Sandy was devastating for this parish,” she said. “Some people are still not in their homes. It’s a long process, and I can see that Texas is going to be the same way. … Hopefully, things will work out for these people.”
Parishioners of St. Robert Bellarmine Co-Cathedral, Freehold, may not have been directly impacted by Superstorm Sandy, but they volunteered by the scores as their faith community became an ongoing distribution center for food, cleaning items, household goods and the like.
“There was this huge army of volunteers willing to go through and separate everything and make sure it went where it was needed,” Msgr. Sam A. Sirianni said after Mass Sept. 3.
Msgr. Sirianni, the Co-Cathedral’s rector, said he is still amazed by all the good that came out of the effort. He said people often become “very comfortable” in life, and events like Superstorm Sandy, and now Harvey, tend to shake up that mentality and move people to put their faith into action.
“As [Harvey] unfolded, a lot of people contacted the parish and wanted to do something. They wanted to become involved, and we’re gearing up,” Msgr. Sirianni said. “We are beginning a collection but are being careful” that what is sent to Texas by truck in mid-September will meet critical needs.
Parishioners such as Jeanne Marinello, parish youth ministry leader, are also making plans to contribute. “This is an opportunity to give back. I came from Brick, and I know that they will have a long road to recovery in Texas. We want to reach out in meaningful ways.”
One idea under consideration is having the youth group “adopt” a parish in Texas, she said, noting that her aunt lives in the Lone Star State and might be able to help.
Danny Scerbo, a Freehold Township High School senior, and his mother, Anna, said they, too, want to get involved. It would be a way to give back for the support their family received from the parish community during his recent bout with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, they said. “That’s what our faith is about, helping others in times of need.”
Another Storm Looming
During the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, St. Mary Parish, Barnegat, opened its doors to the Red Cross, said Alicia Bruno, parish youth minister. In addition, it also opened up its offices to St. Francis of Assisi Parish and community center, which is located in Brant Beach. That Long Beach Island community was flooded for quite some time.
Prompted by Harvey’s impact, Bruno forwarded a flier to the parish community and those enrolled in the religious education program to alert them of a township effort to send a truck full of necessities to the Gulf Coast.
Longer term, Bruno is considering the possibility of some fundraising that would enable the parish to send gift cards to Texas to help purchases necessities. Even as she spoke, Bruno said she was focusing on news reports of Hurricane Irma’s track in the Atlantic Ocean and considering what kind of help might be needed.
Correspondent Maria Ferris contributed to this report.