RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Thousands of others who evacuated from New Orleans and did not end up at the Astrodome often stopped wherever exhaustion overcame them. Some of them ended up in the town of Rayne, Louisiana, home to one Catholic priest, Richard Wagner. NPR's Rebecca Davis reports.
REBECCA DAVIS reporting:
Father Wagner hasn't gotten much sleep this past week. He's been trying to track down fellow priests in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast. He took in nuns whose convent flooded, and then there were hundreds of desperate hurricane survivors. By Sunday, Wagner was exhausted; still, that morning he put on his white robes and gave the weekly Mass.
(Soundbite of mass)
Father RICHARD WAGNER: Right now in Louisiana our hope is shaken and it might seem that our hope is gone. Hope must never die.
DAVIS: Father Wagner is a priest with the Josephite Fathers. They minister to the African-American community. Today, there are new faces. A bus brought a handful of evacuees over for the service.
Father WAGNER: Where are you from?
Unidentified Man #1: New Orleans, east.
Father WAGNER: New Orleans, east.
Unidentified Woman: Yeah.
Father WAGNER: You all by yourself?
Unidentified Man #1: I have my mother and one of my sisters here. I can't find the rest of my family.
Father WAGNER: You can't.
DAVIS: After the service Wagner greets his parishioners. One man he's never seen before walks up, his hair uncombed, tears streaming down his face.
Father WAGNER: What street do you live on out there?
Unidentified Man #2: On Forest Glen(ph) right off the Morrison (unintelligible).
Father WAGNER: Oh, I know. Yeah, I know where that is. And you go to Maria Goretti.
Unidentified Man #2: Yes, sir.
Father WAGNER: With Father Gaucho(ph).
Unidentified Man #2: Right.
DAVIS: Wagner leans in and looks the man in the eye.
Father WAGNER: I'm going to pray that you'll find him.
Unidentified Man #2: Thank you.
Father WAGNER: You got some grace today.
Unidentified Man #2: Yes, I did.
Father WAGNER: Good, good, good, good. I'll see you over there, you know, you see me...
DAVIS: The man walks away, tears dried, and gets on the bus that will take him back to the Civic Center. That's where 1,000 hurricane survivors had set up camp. Wagner feels frustrated.
Father WAGNER: I would like to jump into a boat and go along and try to find people in their attics; I really would like to do that. But I know I have a certain job to do, too, and that is to deal with the people that get out here to regenerate the hope that they lost.
DAVIS: So today, like every other day, Wagner heads over to the Civic Center. He stands at the door and looks out across the sea of mattresses.
Father WAGNER: It's almost like their home--their home is on this mattress now. These mattresses came from everybody in the town. Two of my good blankets are in here somewhere.
DAVIS: Wagner sees a woman with her ankle propped up on a chair. It's Ida Boutrey(ph). He had expected her at Mass that morning; she shows Wagner her bandaged ankle.
Father WAGNER: It's swollen up on you now, huh?
Ms. IDA BOUTREY: Yeah, it's badly bruised.
DAVIS: Boutrey sees something positive in all this, despite her pain.
Ms. BOUTREY: This storm when it happened, I think God just opened up the heaven and brought these people down to help us. And I'm proud to be here until I find another home, but right now this is my home.
DAVIS: Wagner says people are surprised by the generosity they found here in Rayne. He says it's as if Louisiana has discovered something new about itself.
Rebecca Davis, NPR News, Lafayette.
MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.
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