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‘We’ll get through it’: New Orleans pastor looks to rebuild after Ida

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By Christine Rousselle

Washington D.C., Sep 2, 2021 / 15:00 pm

A New Orleans pastor whose parish school was severely damaged in Hurricane Ida is bracing himself for a “big expense,” but hopes classroom life will not be overly disrupted for students this year.

St. Stephen Catholic School, located in Uptown New Orleans, lost the roof of its gymnasium when Hurricane Ida swept through the area on Aug. 29.

“At some point during the early part of the storm, the wind got underneath the vinyl material and then just ripped everything off the roof,” Monsignor Christopher Nalty, pastor of St. Stephen’s church and school, told CNA on Thursday.

The type of roof formerly on the gymnasium “is very prone to getting destroyed,” Nalty explained. And while the full extent of the damage is not yet known, he suspects that the floor of the gymnasium is destroyed as well. He is also waiting to find out how the other wing of the school, with classrooms, fared.

“We’re going to have to replace the roof,” he said. “That’s what we’re working on now.”

In-person classes in the Archdiocese of New Orleans are suspended until after Labor Day, due to the effects of the hurricane. Many areas of the archdiocese still do not have power.

Local media reported on the significant damage at the school.

“Take a look at this. It looks like the roof came off of the school building,” said Travers Mackel, a reporter and anchor at WDSU News in a video surveying the area. “This is by far the worst damage that we’ve seen right here.”

Mackel said that most of the destruction in the surrounding area was to vegetation, and that only St. Stephen Catholic School seemed to have suffered significant property damage.

Pieces of the school’s roof were strewn into nearby trees and in the street. The church building, located next to the school, was largely spared, although part of the steeple was damaged.

Nalty told CNA that he hopes to replace the gym roof with one made out of slatted steel. He said that many Gulf Coast churches have opted to replace their roofs with similar styles after they sustained storm damage.

“I said to [a contractor] ‘That’s what I want on the school,’” Nalty said. “‘Cause I don’t want to fix this again, you know?”

The cost of the repairs is not yet clear, but Nalty told CNA that he does not think it will be cheap. The archdiocese’s insurance policy charges a 3% deductible for any damage done by a named storm, such as Hurricane Ida.

“So 3% of the value of the whole building is the deductible,” he said. “For instance, for my school, my church, I think it’s valued at $15 million. So that means I have a $450,000 deductible before any insurance kicks in.”

For Nalty, the school and its students hold a very special place in his heart, and he hopes that they will be able to return to the school before too long.

“I do a lot of different things in the archdiocese. I teach at the seminary. I’ve got three churches. Quite possibly, the most important thing I do is the school,” he said, blinking back tears.

The school was founded in 1852, and serves students from age two through seventh grade. Following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, St. Stephen Catholic School became a “central school” that took in students whose schools were destroyed.

“Now our school is about 98% African-American and they are from the poorest demographic of the city,” said Nalty. “My principal is a rockstar and these kids are all on scholarship.”

The school is “such a family,” said Nalty. Students are brought to campus early for breakfast, and stay afterwards for aftercare. For the last four years, every graduate has been admitted into a Catholic high school in New Orleans, with a scholarship.

“They go to school in this family community. We have Mass every Friday,” he said. “The kids are actively engaged. They know their faith.”

The opportunities provided to St. Stephen’s students “means the trajectory of their lives has been changed.”

“Their chances are exponentially different from their neighbors that go to the public schools,” said Nalty. “It’s an incredibly important ministry to me. I just love these kids. They’re just, [the storm damage is] just hard.”

“But anyway, you know, well… We’ll get through it.”

Anyone wishing to support the rebuilding effort can do so here.

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