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Hurricane Katrina

Home since the early 1700s, sisters leave city

Their convent described as a "haven" during the past seven days, the Ursuline Sisters decide to go.

By REBECCA CATALANELLO
Published September 5, 2005



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NEW ORLEANS - In 278 years, the Ursuline Sisters of New Orleans have never left their city.

On Sunday, after seven days living in a school surrounded by water, they departed their convent and their town on silver skiffs, uncertain when they would return.

"I'm going to miss this place," said Sister Damian Aycock, 84, just before stepping from the 93-year-old fortress of Ursuline Academy onto a boat piloted by a stranger wearing camouflage.

Ten nuns and 21 lay people ages 4 to 94 spent a week sleeping, eating and praying in the darkened halls of the Ursuline Academy in uptown New Orleans, a few mile s from the French Quarter.

"The idea was not to be here for ourselves, but to be here for others," Sister Damian said. "We thought, "We've been through hell, fire and water before. We're just going to look for the best way to serve."'

The Ursulines first came to New Orleans from France in 1727 with a mission to educate enslaved women and girls. Their original French Quarter convent was famously spared the wrath of the 1794 Second Great Fire, which destroyed 212 buildings. The story goes that as the flames neared their convent on Good Friday, Dec. 8, 1794, the nuns prayed furiously to Our Lady of Prompt Succor. And the wind suddenly shifted.

This time, prayer was not enough to turn back the wrath of Hurricane Katrina. But inside the sandstone-colored walls of the school, the Ursulines provided a shelter of warmth and plenty for those who felt they had nowhere else to go.

"This convent has been a haven, an absolute haven," said Tony Baiamonte, 83, who sought shelter at the State Street convent with his wife, Chetta, 75. The two of them sat side by side as one skiff after another arrived at the outside door to the corridor surrounding a waterlogged courtyard.

Compared with the chaos and heartbreak in the city surrounding them, the Ursulines created a world of structure and community during the crisis. They prayed the rosary every afternoon, held services at 5 every evening, and Sister Carolyn Marie Brockland, prioress of the convent, shared news from outside every day at noon.

Things were so good inside the arched hallways and picture-lined halls of the girls' school that the nuns even turned away a helicopter rescue a day before.

"We became like an island, a castle with a moat around us," said Steve Wagner, 49, facilities manager for the school. "We didn't feel it was appropriate to evacuate 80- and 90-year-old people by helicopter at night. We were fine. We could have lasted another two to three weeks."

Classes started for the 750-student school on Aug. 22, so the kitchen was well stocked with food and water. Gas lines were intact and Wagner's wife, Amalia Garnica, kept the community dining on tacos, pizza, hamburger, cole slaw and salad. Dozens of 105-ounce cans of pineapple, green beans, peas, spaghetti and more lined the cafeteria tables.

"We had plenty," said Garnica, a Lakeview resident who took shelter at the convent with her four boys and dog.

In the end, the sisters decided it was time to go. Reports were saying it could take weeks or months before power, plumbing and services would return. Harry Goodman, 60, a facilities supervisor for the school, decided he'd stay behind and protect the place.

"It's going to be hell playing bingo by myself," he laughed as the last boat prepared to depart.

The nuns will split up after their air-conditioned cruise buses get them to Baton Rouge. Some will go to Texas, some to Illinois, some to La Place, not far from New Orleans.

One woman choked back tears as she stepped onto the boat and waved goodbye to her brother. But Sister Damian, a plump woman with gray, wispy hair, never let the smile fade from her moist face. As she climbed into the boat, she took in the seating arrangements and plopped down near an elderly woman from the neighborhood.

"I want to sit with the skinnies," she said. And they motored away.

[Last modified September 5, 2005, 01:16:12]


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