The Catholic Commentator

Call it a temporary crisis of identity.

From traffic cop to dishwasher to quasi chef to an August Kris Kringle and finally back to his ministerial duties, Father Jason Palermo was thrust into a gumbo of unfamiliar roles a year ago. A natural disaster will have that effect.

As water from the historic flooding of this past August began circling in and around French Settlement, Father Palermo, pastor of St. Joseph Church in French Settlement and St. Stephen the Martyr Church in Maurepas, ventured into unfamiliar areas to assist others.

But even before that, Father Palermo, who is a police chaplain, first spent the morning of Aug. 14 directing traffic at the intersection of Louisiana Highway 16 and Highway 444 near French Settlement.

“We had a lot of people coming in bringing boats and there was water that was in danger of getting into houses from people (driving) through it,” he said. “Someone needed to be there to keep people out, people who wanted to just put their boat in somewhere and go ride through flood areas and not be of assistance.”

By later that night, the French Settlement town hall had flooded, and Father Palermo, who had canceled the 10:45 a.m. Mass earlier that day after attendance at the 9 a.m. Mass was so sparse, offered the St. Joseph parish hall as a shelter.

“It became obvious we needed a shelter in our community for people who were being pulled by the (Livingston Civil Parish) Sheriff’s Office and by the Cajun Army from their homes and rooftops,” he said. “Our task was that when people were pulled off of the water, they would come to us, we would feed them, give them a place just to kind of clean up a little bit, use the bathrooms, let them cool down, hydrate them and help them pick up some clothes that was being donated.

“Then we would take our bus and transport them over to the next shelter (either at nearby Frost School or Killian Baptist Church).”

There was only one, albeit rather important, glitch. From that Sunday through Friday, the church was without electricity, although five generators that were donated helped keep the large refrigerators humming. With a wry smile that landed somewhere between amusement and just south of agony, he recollected how each night he had to gas up the generators while being accompanied by a squadron of pesky mosquitoes.

Volunteers raided the food pantry to feed victims, before the Red Cross and the Salvation Army offered their own donations facilitated through the Second Harvest Food Bank of New Orleans. Those whose homes had not flooded, including Father Palermo, donned chef hats to cook for those less fortunate.

“The food just miraculously came,” Father Palermo said, adding that nearly 2,000 meals were served daily during that first week.

Another unexpected blessing, this one by air, would soon arrive when the Knights of Columbus council from St. Aloysius Church in Baton Rouge donated large amounts of jambalaya and paper goods.

WhenTheWatersRose.pdf

“I just remember a helicopter landing in front of the church and seeing my personal friend, (St. Aloysius Church pastor) Father Randy Cuevas stepping out,” he said “He symbolized hope to me. He just looked at me, put his hand on my shoulder and said, ‘Jason, whatever you need you call and we will do our best to get it to you. If we have to fly it in, we will.’ ”

“I can’t say enough about St. Aloysius stepping up to the plate to do that. There is no way we could repay St. Aloysius for what happened after the flood.”

Large pallets of food also began arriving from Second Harvest, including large amounts of MREs, which presented a culinary challenge to the cooks. Through experimentation and taste tests, the cooks developed unique recipes blending in enough spices to dice up even something as bland as organically produced meatballs.

“We are Cajuns, we like good food,” Father Palermo said. “We became efficient.”

In total, approximately 350 pallets of food and other aid were delivered to St. Joseph, allowing nearly 350 tons of aid to be disbursed to the community.

Meanwhile, the Ladies Altar Society and Catholic Daughters at St. Stephen had also mobilized, and at one point Father Palermo said each of the parish halls resembled a virtual “Sam’s Club” where people would walk in, find clothes, cleaning supplies, water, get fed, and even, if one desired, do some MRE shopping.

In two months, more than 100,000 meals were served out of St. Joseph. In its one month of operation, St. Stephen served approximately 15,000 meals.

Father Palermo cited the Salvation Army, the Greater Baton Rouge Food Bank, the Red Cross and St. Aloysius as being the parish’s biggest allies helping serve food. Additionally, volunteers came from areas as far away as Orlando, Florida and Mobile, Alabama to help cook.

“At the end of the day, when our volunteers could not serve any more food, had emptied the pot onto the last plate, one of the things we all understood was that God gave us exactly what we needed to serve those who needed to be fed,” Father Palermo said. “It was providential and an affirmation that we needed to continue doing this.”

Combined, the relief efforts of St. Joseph and St. Stephen are staggering. Besides the meals, the parishes also distributed more than $350,000 in financial aid, either through checks or gift cards, donated by the Diocese of Baton Rouge, the St. Vincent de Paul Society of St. Joseph and St. Stephen and the Baton Rouge Area Foundation.

Today, Father Palermo said about 80 to 85 percent of parishioners are back in their homes to varying degrees.

“The relief effort after the flood was the highlight of my 10 years of priesthood,” Father Palermo said. “I was very proud of our two parishes.”

“You realize church isn’t just about getting together on Sunday,” he added. “To really embrace the whole message of what it means to be church is to see it as a larger family and when your members are suffering that’s when you open your doors even wider. Everything is in God’s providence and even when disaster strikes there is another opportunity.”