(Editor’s Note: This is the first story in a two-part series about devastating flooding at St. Joseph Abbey and Seminary College north of Covington, which is in the midst of training a record number of aspiring priests at the 127-year-old institution.)
By KEVIN CHIRI
Tammany West news
COVINGTON – When flood waters from swollen area rivers began spilling over their banks in St. Tammany Parish during the heavy rains in early March of this year, St. Joseph Abbey President Rev. Gregory Boquet couldn’t have been too worried that the Abbey or Seminary College would be affected.
After all, the Abbey had never been damaged for over 100-years through rains such as the May, 1995 downpour that brought 24-inches of rain to St. Tammany Parish in 24 hours, or the flooding rains that came from dozens of hurricanes over the past century.
However, the combination of heavy rains for weeks, coupled with northern rivers unloading their water down south, brought about the perfect storm for St. Joseph that flooded 31 buildings on the 1,200 acre campus in mid-March.
Early reports of damage up to $3 million are now appearing like something to wish for. Boquet said their most recent estimate points to over $30 million that will be needed to clean-up, stabilize and restore all the facilities there.
Unfortunately, the Abbey carried no flood insurance since they never had flooding in over 100 years. The hazard insurance covers none of the damage, leaving the Abbey to look to FEMA and private donors to ensure the future of St. Joseph remains in St. Tammany Parish.
“This is not the first time we have had to confront challenges and each time it has made us stronger and more resolved,” Boquet said. “Where we go from here is to continue to grow and, in fact, we expect a record enrollment next semester.”
Boquet said they have begun seeking donations and have raised slightly more than $2 million so far, but will clearly need much more since the prospects of help from FEMA are still uncertain. The Abbey does qualify for a Public Assistance Grant since it is a non-profit educational institution, but FEMA programs are cost reimbursable and only fund up to 75 percent of the eligible costs. If you would like to help, go online to helptheabbey.com or call Director of Development Leslie Tate at 985-867-2235.
The challenge to rebuild and renovate for St. Joseph comes at a time when the interest to become a priest is at an all-time high. Boquet reports 138 students now on campus for the spring semester, and expects even more registered for the fall.
St. Joseph Abbey and Seminary College supports several ministries besides providing a school to train aspiring priests. It is home for 27 monks, the Pennies for Bread ministry that helps feed area needy, St. Joseph Woodworks that builds caskets and sells them to the general public, the ABBEE Honey production facility, a gift shop, the St. Joseph Abbey Cemetery that sells plots to the general public, and the Christian Life Center, open to the general public for retreats and spiritual gatherings.
At the heart of it all, however, is the Seminary College that is rooted in the Benedictine tradition. Not only do they train young men to become priests, but also provide teaching for those in lay ministries.
Boquet has been president of the school for 18 years and said the interest to become a priest has had its up-and-downs over the years, and was as low as 54 students at the school in 1993. He believes the renewed interest is because more young men are attracted to a regimented lifestyle with structure, something offered at St. Joseph.
“The seminary has set the bar higher, something many young men were looking for if they didn’t enter something like the military,” Boquet said. “The record numbers we now have are because this generation seems to be more service oriented—you can see it in high schools and it’s very inspiring.”
Students who enter the Seminary College must qualify with recommendation papers from a home diocese. Tuition costs $27,000 a year and takes four years for a Theology degree. Boquet said that if a student changes his mind about pursuing the ministry it usually occurs in the first two years.
“Most come because they felt a calling and over 75 percent stay through what is an intense program here,” he said.
Boquet acknowledged the biggest question for most young men to answer is “whether God is calling me to celibacy or not. Someone might be called to be in ministry, but perhaps not to celibacy.”
Simply driving onto the heavily wooded campus that is St. Joseph Abbey and Seminary College brings a peaceful feeling when approaching the century old buildings and campus.
Although currently obscured somewhat with construction vehicles as the flood restoration work is underway, the main church sanctuary still stands as a statute of historical and spiritual integrity for the North Shore. Fortunately the flood waters did not damage the main interior of the sanctuary, although the waters did get into the basement where electrical and air conditioning damage was severe.
The air conditioning is vital to protect the magnificent murals painted in the 1940s inside the sanctuary by Benedictine artist Dom Gregory de Wit, who took 10 years to finish the beautiful pieces on the walls—all done with a special mixture of paints to withstand the Louisiana humidity.
St. Joseph Woodworks primarily produces pine caskets that were originally built only to bury the monks who lived and died at the Abbey. Over the years, the Abbey began to produce the caskets for individuals and friends of the center, and now builds them through volunteer help for the general public as another way to help support the overall campus.
ABBEE Honey was started two years ago as another way to raise money for the campus, with volunteer Jeff Horchoff using his expertise in the field to direct the operation. However, the 300,000 bees that had been acquired with 18 active hives were all but destroyed, with only three hives surviving, he said.
Pennies for Bread, an operation that produced 2,000 loaves of bread each day for the Abbey and donated some to food operations for the needy, was completely knocked out by the flood waters and is temporarily out of operation, as is the campus gift shop.
The school library took 2-feet of water and lost every book on the first two lower shelves in that building. A new library had recently begun construction and was originally targeted for completion by the end of the summer, a date that will likely be postponed due to the other priorities of recovery.
Overall, only the Seminary College and cemetery is open and operational, with all other facilities temporarily closed. The Abbey serves 20 different Catholic Church diocese in the Gulf Coast region.
(Part II: Thursday, May 19 edition.)