Monsignor Sees The Hand Of God
“For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me. Then the righteous will answer him and say, When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you? And the king will say to them in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’” (Matthew 25:35-40)
Through the chaos, the sadness, the destruction, of Sandy I witnessed a miracle: the hand of God working in the Rockaways, working at St. Francis de Sales Church. I must admit, God does work in strange ways. In March of 2006 I was transferred from the Bishop’s Office to St. Francis. I remember having just read in the “New York Times” that hurricane patterns were changing and in the next five years hurricanes would be touching down on the east coast. The article went on to mention specifically New Jersey, New York and the peninsula of Rockaway.
Upon arriving in Belle Harbor I told the parish council I wanted a hurricane preparedness plan. Seven years later, even after Hurricane Irene, no one saw a need for such a plan. I was assured a destructive hurricane would never happen, it never has. This is what I was thinking of as I drove across the bridge to Rockaway the day after Sandy. I had evacuated the peninsula, as I have for the last seven years during storms, to Ozone Park only to return to a destroyed neighborhood. I returned to the rectory, parked my car and walked. I remember meeting so many of my parishioners and friends who were obviously in shock. We hugged, we cried, we comforted each other, we prayed. What were we going to do? I prayed, asking God to help me be his witness in the storm, then the miracle began. I returned to the rectory to find the basement flooded, the house unusable, the infrastructure destroyed. Unfortunately the Church, convent, and school, also had water-filled basements and destroyed infrastructure. Even our school yard had over 200 dead cars parked in it. I did the only thing I could, I prayed. Just then I heard a young woman call to me. She told me she and her friends had collected about twenty bags of clothing to give to the needy. Where could we start a distribution center? We went into the church but it like everything else it was underwater. The only dry room was our prayer chapel. We put everything in the chapel and agreed to meet the next day to see what we could do. The next day I attended Mass in another parish in Ozone Park and I prayed, It was obvious we needed a miracle and quick. Soon after the Mass I noticed I had a phone message from San Diego. The caller said he was born and raised in Rockaway. He wanted to help us and come back home with supplies. Never having met James “Watson” Brennan I texted him and welcomed him home. When I arrived back at the parish on the second day I found all the gas shut off, police scuba divers in the rectory basement closing off water pipes and truck loads of clothing and supplies being loaded into the building called the Small Hall. On this day with all the chaos I met “Watson” as he was known and the work began. I remember leaving the parish after midnight having unloading a very large truck filled with supplies sent by another catholic parish that wanted to help us. I went home that night with my mind racing trying to figure out what to do next.
The third day I arrived at the parish early in the morning only to find my parish had become the center of the chaos. Before the government, Red Cross, or any other group could organize itself this Catholic parish was doing what the Catholic Church does best, it serves in the name of God. There were supplies all over the outside of the Church building. People in need were going through bags of clothes.
It was a chaotic situation that I knew I needed to control. Before I got out of my car I again prayed for help. I remember specifically asking for a person who could help me. I then got out of my car and called all those who first volunteered together and explained that we had have a meeting to discuss how to go forward. Just as I said this a hand reached out and touched my shoulder. It was “Watson” who was standing with a man who introduced himself as Oscar Gubernati. James told me he asked Oscar to help us as he had experience with disaster recovery in Haiti, Sri Lanka, and other places. He offered to help, another answer to a prayer. With Oscars’ help our Small Hall became a storage center, the gym a Relief Center for clothing and needed supplies, the school a control center. Eventually this parish disaster center served 4-10,000 people a day from the end of October to January 1st. I recall that another problem arose. The lack of cooked food, heat and shelter. One night the relief center housed families and individuals who needed to escape the cold and snow. It was obvious that the center was keeping people alive but more had to be done.
That night I again I prayed, that prayer was answered in the arrival of the construction company “Navillus.” Upon returning to the parish the next morning I found a small tent erected in the school yard with a large number of construction workers being assigned to do repair work in the neighborhood. At this time Donal Sullivan, the owner of Navillus, introduced himself and promised he was there to help.
Once we were able to clear the school yard of the destroyed cars Navillus donated a heating and feeding tent which gave shelter and heat where the members of Rockaway could meet, eat a hot meal and share fellowship. Again God had come through. The final miracle of the St. Francis de Sales relief center was the arrival of volunteers from across the United States. Those with relief experience such as Oscar Gubinetti, Alison Thompson, David Perez gave their expertise freely. The combination of people working at the center, those from the Jewish community, the Muslim community, the Catholics and Christian community, the Mormon community, young and old alike, retired military, all working to serve the needy. Was the center taken advantage of at times? Certainly, but as the Red Cross and FEMA assured me evil is always present when countering disasters. But I can assure all those who experienced work of the “St. Francis de Sales Disaster Relief Center” those who took advantage of the storm never defeated the hand of God.
A year later what do I remember of Sandy? I will always remember that at the Catholic Parish of St. Francis de Sales a miracle took place. At this sight, before anyone else could help, an incredible number of people were cared for at a relief center that began with bags of cloths, generous volunteers, and the hand of God.
Msgr. John Brown, is the former pastor of St. Francis de Sales, Belle Harbor.