(Editor’s Note: This is the second 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 – Quietly nestled in the midst of the thick Louisiana forests north of Covington, St. Joseph Abbey and Seminar College has been producing much more than priests for the Catholic Church since it was built over 120 years ago.
The Abbey and college have operated like clockwork year-after-year since being built there in 1889 by monks coming south from Indiana. But heavy March rains in Southeast Louisiana this year brought about the greatest challenge ever with 2 feet of flooding waters that entered 31 of the buildings on the 1,200 acre campus.
Father Gregory Boquet said the loss now appears to exceed $30 million for the damage that was not covered by hazard insurance. The Abbey did not carry flood insurance since it had never experienced one flooded building in 127 years of existence.
A campaign to raise money is underway and has netted slightly more than $2 million so far with much more still needed. Help may come from FEMA, but that is 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. To help, go online to helptheabbey.com or call Director of Development Leslie Tate at 985-867-2235.
Meanwhile, a record number of students are enrolled for the current spring semester—a total of 138 that has peaked since the interest to study at the college began going higher five years ago. Boquet said he expects an even higher enrollment this fall.
Boquet said the current challenge facing the Abbey and Seminary College, while daunting to be sure, is something that “will make us stronger and more resolved.”
While the Seminary College students are meeting in different buildings and experiencing changes in scheduling to continue their classes, St. Joseph is home to much more than the college, with a host of other ministries that support the school and monks, while offering something special to the North Shore communities to be involved with.
A casket building woodworks operation, bee hives, bread production work, a retreat center, gift shop and public cemetery are all part of what has made St. Joseph a special place for St. Tammany residents and others along the entire Gulf Coast.
An explanation of what the Abbey and college mean to the region might best be summed up from a paragraph on their website:
“Over the past century, Saint Joseph Abbey has become an enduring presence in the Gulf South, etching in small strokes an indelible mark on local and regional history. The Abbey has educated many of the region’s civic and religious leaders. It has founded and staffed numerous parishes in the New Orleans and Northshore areas. It has had a significant impact on area culture by sponsoring and promoting programs in both liturgical and secular arts. And finally, Saint Joseph Abbey has maintained and cultivated an abiding spiritual presence in the community, which is manifested in its daily rhythms of prayer.”
However, the flood waters have shut down all of the activities other than the woodworks shop and college, as restoration and rebuilding continues as quickly as possible.
St. Joseph Woodworks is one center that is operating with much assistance from volunteer Jeff Horchoff, one of 23 volunteers who work there to support the Abbey and gain the benefits of working for God and their church. The woodworks department is under the direction of Deacon Mark Coudrain.
Monks had originally constructed the pine caskets there to bury their own in the cemetery on site, but over the years began building more for friends and church members before finally offering them to the general public.
The caskets come in two models: traditional and monastic, costing $1,700 for the latter that is a simple casket most monks are buried in, or a traditional casket sold for $2,250.
Horchoff said they send out up to 30 caskets every month with only one paid employee working at the center.
“When I retired from my former job I knew the director of the center and he knew I had 40 years of woodworking experience,” Horchoff said, now a volunteer there for seven years. “We all love being here. The atmosphere is similar to where the monks work and pray.”
Pennies for Bread began in 1990 producing 1,000 loaves of bread a week to distribute to the area needy. Now the bakery produces 2,000 loaves a week—when it is operational–and aids the needy all the way to New Orleans at designated charitable organizations.
Flood waters have currently shut the bakery down, which is entirely run by the monks on site, who bake, cut, bag and deliver the bread. It is funded by charitable donations to the Abbey.
The Retreat Center is also closed as repairs continue to the many buildings on the property. When open it offered a peaceful setting for any groups to meet for special days where individuals could develop their spirituality. The surrounding grounds and pine forests provide the perfect peaceful setting for such meetings.
The Abbey has been allowing guests to meet there for 40 years, and now offer their own Abbey-sponsored group settings for men, women, married couples and mixed groups. Groups do not have to be Catholic to meet there as other faiths are also welcome.
Up to 42 individuals can attend at a time, each with individual rooms with private baths, while meals are also provided for the retreats.
The St. Joseph Cemetery is another phase of the property that used to be private, but is now open to sell plots to the general public for a price of $4,500 each, which also includes a headstone.