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9/22/2011 10:01:00 AM
Parishes still struggling with storm recovery
"MY BRAIN IS FLOODED," said Rev. Peter Chepaitis, OFM, pictured above at his home after Tropical Storms Irene and Lee. "I have worked for 18 days, and I'm over the edge."

When the Schoharie Creek flooded Aug. 28, Father Chepaitis lost everything but the few items he took with him when he evacuated his double-wide mobile home in Middleburgh: his violin, his Franciscan habit, his book of the Liturgy of the Hours, his laptop computer, a change of clothes and the Blessed Sacrament.

When he was able to return Sept. 4, he wrote, his rented home "looked like a giant blender into which someone had put all of [his possessions], together with an over-generous amount of mud, and let it go for hours."

The mobile home is structurally sound. After staying in a storage room at the apartment of Sister Anna Tantsits, IHM, with whom he runs Bethany Ministries, Father Chepaitis was offered temporary housing near Schoharie. He expects to move back home in November.

In the meantime, the priest and nun are working to rebuild their ministry. They lead parish retreats and the like using puppets that were lost in the flood; they plan to buy new ones through a local business and hope others will "adopt a puppet" to support them. Contact Bethany Ministries at bethmin@midtel.net. (KB)

HOW TO HELP Catholic Charities of the Albany Diocese is working with its agencies in affected areas to assess needs and provide help. To donate online, go to www.ccrcda.org">www.ccrcda.org. Send checks, made out to Catholic Charities Irene Relief, to: Catholic Charities, 40 North Main Ave., Albany, NY 12203. For more information, call (518) 453-6650.

"I'm tired. It's endless," said Rev. Thomas Holmes of Our Lady of the Valley parish in Middleburgh on Sept. 16.

The pastor went 13 days without hot water, but that was a small sacrifice compared to the more than 20 families in his Schoharie County parish left homeless after Tropical Storms Irene and Lee.

"One couple built their house 62 years ago, and their house has been condemned," Father Holmes reported. At 85 years old, he said, the couple is faced with starting over again.

Most Middleburgh residents are "still in cleanup mode" according to the pastor, who's grateful that the church itself did not flood. He lost his hot water tank and furnace when the rectory basement flooded; the basement's dirt and loose-stone floor was covered with six inches of mud, too slippery to venture into for cleaning.

A cousin and friends came over to install a new tank. Eight dump trucks of mud were also taken out of the parish parking lot.

But Father Holmes said the lack of more serious damage at Our Lady of the Valley was ironic: The former St. Joseph's Church in Schoharie, which had been bought by an individual after it closed for use as a train museum, had taken on 10 feet of water. The Presbyterian and Reformed churches in Schoharie also flooded. Middleburgh's Lutheran and Reformed churches both had filled with six feet of water.

"'That which does not kill us makes us stronger,'" Father Holmes quoted, adding: "A lot of people have said this is the devil at work. They're not blaming God; a lot of people are just amazed that nobody died."

In fact, he said, "I'm totally impressed with the parishes" of the Albany Diocese. "They're calling up to say, 'We want to send you money' - and it's not little money, it's big money. It's really an opportunity to show what we're all about."

Our Lady of the Valley is only accepting monetary donations, since the parish has no storage space (see sidebar on how to donate). But parishioners continue to dole out 300 to 400 meals each day to storm victims and relief workers through a feeding site in the parish hall, with volunteers bringing food to Schoharie and Blenheim, as well.

"There's a lot of goodness that's come out of this," Father Holmes declared. He plans to split the donations - about $42,000 total so far, from parishes across the Diocese and Knights of Columbus from all over New York State - between the families who have lost their homes and to help other storm victims.

The bulletin from St. Michael's parish in Troy cited $5,000 in donations for storm victims and noted that one parishioner who's been volunteering in Schoharie asked others to join cleanup efforts. Students from The College of Saint Rose in Albany used a planned community service day Sept. 17 to join flood relief efforts in Middleburgh and Schoharie.

Sacred Heart parish in Lake George has donated prepaid cell phones, gift cards and more; the bulletin notes that St. Vincent's parish in Cobleskill is dispersing supplies to those in need.

Enormous needs
"At this point, I know of at least four families that have lost their homes - and I wouldn't be surprised if there were more," said Lynn O'Rourke, parish life director at Our Lady of Fatima parish in Delanson.

As of Sept. 16, she heard that 60 to 80 percent of the homes in nearby Schoharie should be condemned. The PLD has already been advising local residents who have given up on saving their homes about where to find apartments; she said that Sister Joan Curley, CSJ, former parish life director of closed St. Joseph's parish in Schoharie, was among those needing to move.

Our Lady of Fatima parishioners sent two vanloads of school supplies to Schoharie and Middleburgh schools, said Ms. O'Rourke, but the need is enormous: Just like the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina down south, "You're driving along and you see a house with a big orange X on it and junk in the yard."

Schoharie Community Maternity Services director Gen Overholt will also lose the site for her Catholic Charities agency. "We probably will move our office to a Head Start location in Schoharie in 10 days," she said Sept. 16.

"I'm working from home," she added; but "I'm flexible. Our staff met in Albany today, and our Oneonta office is intact, so we can work from there. I met [a staffer] at Stewart's the other day; I met a caseworker at the vet's to exchange files."

Four CMS clients from Schoharie "lost everything in the second round" of flooding, said Ms. Overholt. "Donations are appreciated."

She wanted readers to know that the money collected by Catholic Charities is going directly to those in need: "I just requested $400 [from the fund] because those clients that lost their homes have no clothes. Things like underwear, you can't get [from thrift shops]. I give people gift cards and they start crying."

It's difficult to contact anyone at Sacred Heart parish in Margaretville; a recording simply tells callers that, because of flooding, all weekend Masses are being said at the parish's mission church, St. Anne's in Andes, until further notice. Daily Masses have been cancelled; all parish events like a planned harvest dinner are postponed indefinitely.

The Sept. 18 parish bulletin noted that cleanup efforts are continuing on all parish buildings and that bookkeeper Terry Lehn is working from home.

Since the parish center sustained serious flood damage, young faith formation students have been issued textbooks and workbooks and are being encouraged to work independently at home with their parents' help. Middle- and high-school students will begin meeting soon, though start dates and locations have not yet been decided.

"Please keep those affected by flooding in your prayers," the bulletin noted.

Faith formation students will use the former rectory - now a parish center - at St. Margaret of Cortona Church in Rotterdam Junction when they start classes this weekend. Parish secretary Ann Marie Smart reported Sept. 19 that several feet of sheetrock was ruined in all the faith formation classrooms and "the rooms are in chaos" from flooding and mold.

"There's debris on the streets" nearby, she added. "It's sad to see."

The church, a mission of St. Joseph's parish in Schenectady, has still been unable to contact many parishioners since the storms. Ms. Smart said she knew some families are unable to live in their homes, but "we haven't been able to identify yet who they are."

Donations add up
St. Margaret's held a free dinner for storm victims earlier this week and may plan more such meals if needed. Ms. Smart noted that the many volunteers have been a welcome sight in the town: "There's an absolute wonderful response from people."

The parish bulletin cited a donation of nearly $7,800 for storm victims from parishioners of St. Margaret's, St. Joseph's in Schenectady and St. Joseph's in Scotia.

Sacred Heart parish in Stamford has taken up a collection for four area families with severe home damage to cover lost clothing, food, monthly fees for storage trailers while their homes are being cleaned and other needs.

That cleaning has included "mucking out," power-washing and drying basements and removing first-floor carpeting and flooring to fight mold, according to Rev. Michael Cambi, pastor, who has begun taking groups of parishioners to the affected houses to help clean.

He said Sept. 16 that he expects to continue this effort weekly; Father Cambi has already taken groups to do cleaning on weekdays, since other volunteers tend to come on weekends.

At St. Theresa's parish in Windham, secretary Siobhan Lavery said some families are still waiting for FEMA and insurance aid, but "progress is coming."

Part-time residents who own second homes in Windham are "right there" providing financial aid, she added, and "I'll take anything and everything" except clothing. One former Windham resident sent two pallets of cleaning supplies, food and clothing from St. Louis, Mo., where she'd taken up a collection from her office staff.

What's needed
The church hall has been turned into a food pantry, giving out not just food but cleaning and hygiene supplies and baby products.

"Some people not only lost their homes, they lost their jobs," Ms. Lavery told The Evangelist. "Some are just starting to come in now, because they were too embarrassed at first."

Volunteers from Holy Trinity parish in Hudson/Germantown have offered to pitch in at the Windham distribution center. One of their own worship sites lost slate tiles from roof and a garage was dented by a falling tree, but they're more concerned with their neighbors in need. The parish planned a special collection Sept. 16-17.

(Staff writer Angela Cave contributed to this story.)

Related Stories:
• Storms bring surge of aid
• Irene devastates several counties
• Diocese deluged by Irene

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