By Rachele Smith
The Catholic Commentator
Some eight months after high water inundated Baton Rouge and the surrounding areas, rebuilding continues to drag on for many flood victims.
Mission trip volunteers from St. Alphonsus Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan gather for a photo with Father Chuong Cao CSsR, far right, during one of their last nights together in Baton Rouge.
Facing insurance questions, bank requirements, contractor schedules, and oh yeah, normal job and family demands, the struggles and what can seem like never-ending work can appear insufferable.
But for 10 families living in North Baton Rouge, all parishioners and friends of St. Gerard Majella Church in Baton Rouge, hope rang true thanks to a group of dedicated adults from Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Virginia Scholten, the group organizer and a parishioner of St. Alphonsus Church in Grand Rapids, said bringing a mission team to Baton Rouge was “the right thing to do” after learning about the flood.
She said her team of a dozen volunteers, ranging in age from 27 to “into their 80s,” was driven by a desire to make a difference as they cleaned, installed drywall, painted walls and completed other work desperately needed by flood victims.
Never mind many of these volunteers used their own personal work leave or vacation time to come to Baton Rouge for the week, Scholten said they just wanted to reach out to those in need.
Father Chuong Cao CSsR, pastor at St. Gerard Majella provided the group with a list of homeowners needing help and Scholten said they prioritized what had to be done.
“Anyone not in their homes or needing walls were top priority,” she said, adding that as soon as the group arrived in town that first night, they immediately visited with homeowners to make sure enough supplies were on hand to start work the next morning.
“It was irrelevant if we were tired (from the two-day drive); we only had a week, and we knew we had a lot of work to do,” she said.
According to Scholten, the “His Hands” ministry at St. Alphonsus, which helps coordinate mission trips for parishioners, was looking for an opportunity to work on a construction or building project this year. St. Gerard Majella was chosen because of its ties to the Redemptorists, who also serve the St. Alphonsus church community.
“We also knew about the parish from Father Lamar,” said Scholten.
Father Lamar Partin, a Baton Rouge native, lived in St. Gerard Majella parish as a young child, and in a church ceremony in 2011, he was ordained into the order of Redemptorist priests. Father Partin later served at St. Alphonsus (or “St. Al’s” as Scholten affectionly calls her home parish) before accepting his current assignment in the order’s vocations office.
Before arriving in Baton Rouge, Scholten spoke at length with Father Cao, assessing the needs of his parish.
“Father Cao has been wonderful and gracious to work with. He worked so hard to get this (our living quarters) cleaned up before we arrived and was determined that we would not pay for any of our meals,” said Scholten, noting how breakfast, lunch and dinner for their entire week were prepared and delivered by parishioners and local restaurants.
“We have a lot of thank-you’s to write when we get home,” she added.
Father Cao said the group has been a blessing, not only to the homeowners they helped, but also to him personally, pointing to the way the volunteers cleaned the parish center (the school’s former daycare building).
“I was so grateful. They saved me,” he added, noting how the unselfish attitude of the volunteers continued beyond the original week with one couple opting to stay almost another full week to complete a job for a homeowner.
“They really saw there was a need and felt this was what they were called to do,” Father Cao said.
Scholten said one of the most meaningful parts of the mission trip was a nightly reflection all members of the group participated in based on the teachings of St. Alphonsus Ligouri, the founder of the Redemptorist order.
Called “The crib, the cross, the Eucharist,” group members were encouraged to share their daily experiences of anything new, anything difficult and finally the day’s joy.
For one member, seeing a cockroach was new since the creepy insects don’t normally live in Michigan, Scholten laughed. One difficult experience many shared was feeling inadequate because there was just so much work that needed to be done and there wasn’t enough time.
But one happy moment many members expressed involved one of the homeowners, Scholten said.
“She was kinda hanging around with the crew and one day she read her own poetry to them. She was just an amazing lady,” she said.
Scholten is certain each volunteer will fondly remember their mission trip experiences at St. Gerard Majella, and she added she would like to see a youth group from St. Al’s return to Baton Rouge, possibly soon, to help more people in the area.