- Associated Press - Saturday, March 18, 2017

COVINGTON, La. (AP) - At about 7 p.m., the flood-swollen Bogue Falaya River rose to historic levels near St. Joseph Abbey and Seminary College north of Covington, spreading more than two feet of water across the entire 1,200-acre campus. All 31 main buildings, many of them historic structures not covered by insurance, were damaged. The price tag for repairs was hellish: $30 million.

That was March 11, 2016.

One year later, the high water has been replaced by high-energy construction workers on a mission to restore and improve the campus, a fixture on the North Shore for more than 125 years. Abbot Justin Brown estimates that repairs are about 50 percent complete. He says it will take at least two years to complete the resurrection.

But with $5.3 million in donations already received, Brown said, the hardship of the past year has given way to a sense of renewal and a deepening of his faith in the goodness of ordinary people. The abbey received several six-figure donations, one given anonymously. But many were just small amounts raised by school groups and other organizations that put on bake sales and other fundraisers to help the cause.

“It has been very touching how that money was given,” Brown said. “Many were just heartfelt gifts from people who just wanted to help.”

The flood was caused by heavy rain in St. Tammany and areas north of the parish. Rivers rose to record or near-record levels on March 11 and 12. The Bogue Falaya set record marks of 20.07 feet at Boston Street in Covington and 62.5 feet at Camp Covington north of the city, according to the National Weather Service.

More than 700 structures took on water in St. Tammany in a flood overshadowed just five months later by what became known as the Louisiana Flood of 2016. The August flood caused widespread damage in parts of Tangipahoa, Livingston, East Baton Rouge, East Feliciana, Washington, Ascension, Lafayette, Iberville and St. Martin parishes.

But St. Tammany took a bigger hit in the March flood. The Bogue Falaya and its tributaries overran their banks, swamping parts of downtown Covington and many areas to the north. The abbey, located in the St. Benedict community, abuts the river.

Although the water receded quickly, damage to the uninsured campus was extensive. The cleanup phase alone cost about $3 million, abbey officials said. That phase ended by late May, and in mid-June the historic St. Joseph Abbey church was reopened to the public.

While the church nave did not flood, the basement took on several feet of water. That destroyed electrical and air conditioning systems, causing abbey leaders to close the building to the public for almost three months.

Seminary classes resumed on campus not long after the flood, with students and resident monks moving their classes and living quarters to the upper floors of buildings. Despite the hardship, students and faculty say they have tried to make the best of the situation.

“I don’t think we missed a beat,” said Nathaniel Peters, a senior seminary student and a graduate of Brother Martin High School in New Orleans. “We just continued our preparation for the priesthood.”

Meanwhile, the abbey’s ministries slowly came back to life. A bee-keeping operation that produces honey and St. Joseph’s Woodworks, which makes and sells caskets to the public to raise money for the abbey, are back in full swing. So is Pennies for Bread, which bakes and distributes bread to needy people. Blooming azaleas help provide visual normalization.

But for the time being, the whirring of power tools has replaced the chanting of monks as the predominate sound on campus. About 30 construction workers spend their days working on two of the main campus buildings, Borromeo Hall and Vianney Hall, a dormitory that had been completely renovated and reopened to students in January 2013.

Brown said he hopes to start renovating the campus retreat center in April. He said restoring the center, which typically hosts about 3,000 guests each year, will be a big step in the abbey’s recovery.

Having not flooded since the great Mississippi River Valley flood of 1927, the abbey did not have flood insurance in March 2016. It has since addressed that issue, but it must overcome the current losses on its own.

Brown said it remains to be determined how much FEMA money will be available to the abbey. He said federal money could be made available to cover some campus buildings and equipment that are strictly deemed educational - as opposed to religious - in nature. The process for determining what is eligible is still underway.

The abbey has already borrowed money and used some of its savings and the donations to jump-start restoration. Brown said he hopes to raise another $5 million to $7 million in donations to complete the job.

While the blow certainly sent the abbey reeling, Brown said he hopes it will help upgrade the campus for the increasing number of young men who are “hearing the call” to become seminarians. There are 142 enrolled in the current year, 20 more than last year and a record high. Modular buildings are in use to help meet housing needs.

Brown said he sees the continuing work on campus not just as restoration, but as an effort to improve the abbey for what he hopes is a trend toward more seminary students.

“We have a growing number of students, and the population grew after the flood,” Brown said. “This is about rebuilding for an increasing number of students.”

The past year has been difficult one for the abbey, but not unprecedented. In 1907, less than a decade after Benedictine monks established the abbey, the monastery and seminary were reduced to rubble by a fire. Thanks in large part to benefactors, the abbey was resurrected.

More than 100 years later, Brown said the donations and prayers offered have been overwhelming and have helped him cope over the past year.

“Any suffering and hardship we encounter always brings resurrection,” he said. “And we are experiencing resurrection.”


Information from: The Times-Picayune, https://www.nola.com

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