March 31, 2006

Biloxi seminarians continue formation
at Saint Meinrad

By Sean Gallagher

When Hurricane Katrina crashed ashore on Aug. 29 last year, it left no aspect of life in coastal Mississippi untouched.

Like so many others in their home state over the last seven months, seminarians from the Diocese of Biloxi, Miss., are slowly coming to terms with the impact the hurricane has had on their lives.

Two of them, Adam Chapman and Jose Vazquez-Morales, who before the storm had been studying at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans, have been picking up the pieces of their priestly vocations at Saint Meinrad School of Theology in St. Meinrad.

Chapman, 23, grew up in the coastal city of Pascagoula, Miss. Living so close to the Gulf had led him to seek God’s presence in the sea and in the storms that blew off of it.

But nothing in his life had prepared him for Katrina. And when it came ashore, its destructive forces led him to question his faith.

“It was a temptation for me,” Chapman said in a recent interview with The Criterion. “It was a very difficult time for [my] faith.”

For two weeks after the storm, Chapman struggled to live with his parents and five other families in a relative’s home 10 miles north of the coast.

Yet the help that he saw flowing into his state bolstered his trust in God.

“You’re able to really see the love of God in the people that come, and the aid that comes from throughout the country,” said Chapman, who is a pre-theology seminarian. “There’s a love of God in the response of the people.”

Vazquez-Morales had sought shelter from the hurricane in a parish nearly three hours further north. In the days that followed, he worked hard to help those affected by Katrina in the nearby area.

With landline telephone service completely down and cellular phone service spotty at best, Father Dennis Carver, the Diocese of Biloxi’s vocations director, spent a week driving around the diocese searching for his seminarians.

After finding them, contacting the United States bishops’ vocations office and Saint Meinrad School of Theology, Father Carver told six of his seminarians to drive north to the southern Indiana seminary.

“I didn’t even know where it was,” said Vazquez-Morales, a second-year theologian. “I didn’t even know how to spell the name.”

Leaving their storm-ravaged diocese was a challenge for Chapman, who said he felt selfish and guilty about going north.

“[But] it was better for me to go [there] and prepare for the future because the new Diocese of Biloxi is going to need priests,” he said. “So I felt like it was a better use of my time and energy to push forward.”

The Biloxi seminarians eventually made their way to Saint Meinrad, arriving there late one night in the middle of September.

Despite arriving close to midnight, there were seminarians waiting for them. One who arranged for their welcome was transitional Deacon Scott Nobbe, who is scheduled to be ordained to the priesthood in SS. Peter and Paul Cathedral in Indianapolis on June 24.

He made sure that their rooms were readied and, upon their arrival, determined each of the seminarians’ particular needs.

“The general consensus, myself included, was that we were very excited we could do something to help individuals out and, in particular, seminarians in this tragedy,” Deacon Nobbe said.

The needs turned out to be great.

“We didn’t have any money with us,” Vazquez-Morales said. “They provided some for us. We didn’t have much clothing, and we got some from the seminary.

“So it was wonderful just to see the support from our brothers. They didn’t know us. We didn’t know them, but they were so open to just to be with us and help us in whatever we needed.”

That included a listening ear. Chapman noted that the seminarians who welcomed him were curious to hear his first-hand account of Katrina, but respected his and his fellow Biloxi seminarians’ need for space to cope with the storm’s effects on their lives.

“They’ve been very cognizant of that,” he said. “There were times when I was tired of talking about the hurricane, but they’ve been very good about it, very sensitive, even though they had no idea where I was coming from.”

According to Father Carver, Saint Meinrad School of Theology was also mindful of the financial poverty that the hurricane put the Biloxi Diocese into and offered full scholarships for its seminarians.

“That has been a tremendous gift to us,” he said, “[something] for which I will be forever grateful.”

Benedictine Father Mark O’Keefe, the president-rector of Saint Meinrad School of Theology, credits the seminary’s benefactors for the financial aid it offered, and its Benedictine roots for the hospitality shown to the Biloxi seminarians.

“Certainly hospitality and welcoming the guest as Christ is a Benedictine charism, one that we treasure,” he said. “And I think that the seminarians here have been formed by that, [both] consciously and unconsciously.”

Of the six Biloxi seminarians initially welcomed by Saint Meinrad, three, who were transitional deacons, soon returned to their home diocese. Another discontinued his priestly formation.

Chapman and Vazquez-Morales remain at Saint Meinrad and are planning to continue their studies there.

Father Carver is radically aware of the devastation Katrina inflicted on his diocese.

At the time of the storm, he was pastor of St. Paul Parish in Pass Christian, Miss. Katrina completely destroyed nine of its 10 buildings, and a large majority of its members’ homes. It has since been merged with another parish.

But Father Carver believes that the destruction wrought by the hurricane can have a positive impact on the lives of the diocese’s seminarians.

“My hope is that they will minister to a people who have seen … and understand the Passion of the Lord,” he said. “And I think that by the time they’re ordained, … the people and the communities will begin to experience the Resurrection of the Lord.

“So I think in simply serving them, they will come to understand Christ better. And I think when a priest understands Christ better through the people, then that priest’s ministry is going to be fabulous.” †


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