By Debbie Shelley

The Catholic Commentator

The mission work started in the Labadieville area through Blessings on the Bayou is coming to Baton Rouge through the Blessings Mission, sponsored by St. Thomas More Church, June 13-17.

Father Michael Alello, pastor of STM, began Blessings on the Bayou in 2009 when he was pastor of St. Philomena Church in Labadieville as a way for youth to see that they can serve people “right in their own backyard” by helping those on fixed incomes in the Labadieville, Napoleonville and Thibodaux areas.

In seven years, approximately 1,000 people across the Diocese of Baton Rouge have come together to help the less fortunate, according to Father Alello.

The mission took a two-year hiatus, due to the flood of 2016 and Father Alello being re-assigned as pastor of St. Louis King of France, which was amulgated with St. Thomas More under his leadership. The mission will resume again this year under the banner Blessings Mission and will focus on helping people in the Baton Rouge area.

“We have been overwhelmed by the support from St. Thomas More,” said Father Alello. “It’s been a great opportunity to move outside of the church into the community.”

This year, STM will partner with St. Bernard Project (SBP), a local organization assisting rebuilding efforts of area homes damaged from the flood of 2016. SBP will provide the volunteer sites.

According to Demitria Larry, volunteer coordinator/program manager for SBP, Zack Rosenburg and Liz McCartney, who originally lived in Washington DC, started SBP after they volunteered in Louisiana’s St. Bernard Parish following Hurricane Katrina and saw the slow progress of institutional or the “traditional” rebuilding process. They were inspired by the residents’ collective spirit and fierce determination to rebuild. With the support of donors, volunteers and corporate partners, the organization has grown from its New Orleans corporate headquarters to other areas, including Baton Rouge. Its focus is to help shrink the time between disaster and recovery.

Larry noted that after a disaster, SBP rebuilds for low-to-moderate income residents with a special focus on families with small children, the elderly, disabled persons, war veterans, the under- and underinsured, as well as victims of contractor fraud.

Nationally, SPB rebuilds a disaster impacted home in an average of 61 days at 40 percent of the cost of market rate contractors by relying on the national service organization Americorps and volunteer labor, according to Larry.

The STM volunteers will receive orientation and training and will help rebuild a family’s home, which may include hanging insulation or drywall, mudding/spackling, texturing, priming, painting, laying floors and or hanging trim, doors and baseboards.

By working with Americorps volunteers, Blessings Mission participants are exposed to the program and they can decide if they would like to join, Larry said.

Stephanie Shaw, former director of religious education at St. Philomena who helped organize Blessings on the Bayou and will also assist with the Blessings Mission, said the Blessings Mission will be “about the simple things.” She said while rebuilding efforts are “a portion of it,” youth will also be visiting the elderly and homebound and forming relationships with members of the community.

“We incorporate the manual labor, but we also incorporate prayer and visiting people,” said Shaw.

Through their mission work, Shaw said the youth will disconnect from their everyday concerns and distractions and live their Catholic faith in a deeper sense.

“You don’t have to go outside of the country where there is no cell phone service to disconnect,” said Shaw.

She noted that while the participants may have a hesitation when they first begin the mission, “by Sunday they are in tears and don’t want to leave.”

She said the mission also pulls in the STM community as they help “the young church” by either directly volunteering in the work, serving as mentors or adult supervisors, providing shower facilities, serving on a food line, providing dessert or praying.

Rosie Vutera, STM youth director said, “We are keeping a lot of what Blessings on the Bayou was when we held it in Labadieville – serving our commu with our hands as well as working on cleansing our hearts throughout the week. Along with the community service we bring the kids to, we journey along with them through their Catholic faith in the evenings.  We offer reconciliation, adoration, anointing of the sick and evening talks to challenge them.”

Vutera said after dinner each night, the leaders will ask the large group where they have seen the “blessings” in the day. 

 The youth will sleep on site at STM on air mattresses, sleeping bags or cots, Vutera said.

“This brings the experience full circle in getting to know each other and getting to know their blessings from the days they spend with each other,” Vutera said.