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Boston Catholics feel call to help Katrina victims

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People across the United States have opened their wallets, their homes and their hearts to the victims of Hurricane Katrina, most of whom lost everything to the devastating storm, which hit the Gulf Coast less than two weeks ago. Many in the Archdiocese of Boston have also felt the same call to contribute to the relief effort.

On Aug. 31, two days after Katrina made landfall in Mississippi, Archbishop Se├ín P. O’Malley announced that a special collection would be taken at Masses Sept. 3-4 to assist the victims of the hurricane.

"We are witnessing a dramatic and heart wrenching human tragedy in those areas impacted by Hurricane Katrina. Having personally experienced the devastation caused by Hurricane Hugo in 1989 while I was Bishop of the Virgin Islands I am well aware of the plight of those who have lost their homes and personal possessions and now lack shelter, clean water, food, electricity and communications," Archbishop O'Malley said in a statement announcing the collection. "We are called to join together at this difficult time to assist our fellow citizens in any way we can."

The money raised from the collection will be donated to Catholic Charities USA, the Church’s domestic disaster response agency. As of press time the money from the collection had not yet been tallied.

Father Bryan Hehir, president of Catholic Charities for the Archdiocese of Boston, himself a former head of Catholic Charities USA, explained that Catholic Charities USA will work in conjunction with the local Catholic Charities to bring relief to the affected regions.

"Catholic Charities USA will ask the local agencies to outline their priorities and specific needs and to give them a report of how the money they were allocated was spent," said Father Hehir. "The money will be given over a period of time so it can be used immediately and then replenished."

Father Hehir stated that the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina is the largest domestic disaster that Catholic Charities has had to confront, at least in the history of the 20th century. “Sept. 11 was an enormous catastrophe, but it didn’t have the scope and the distance, and it didn’t involve as many places and people as this does,” said Father Hehir.

Catholic Charities usually acts as a “second-level responder” to catastrophes, said Father Hehir. “We do things immediately as we are doing now, providing food and water, but we also provide long-term aid,” he said. “When families start to plan how they will put their lives back together we are valuable as planning agents and counseling agents.”

Father Hehir said that Catholic Charities works with some families for a number of years after a disaster like Hurricane Katrina occurs, helping them to get access to resources, such as housing and employment, that they can use to rebuild their lives.

He said that Boston raised approximately $1.9 million for victims of last December’s Indian Ocean tsunami. It is the hope that local donations to Katrina victims will match if not exceed that amount. According to Cullen Buckland, spokesman for Catholic Charities in Boston, their office has fielded many calls from people looking to help the victims. He said that donations should be made directly to Catholic Charities USA, which he called “the most expeditious way to get monies to the people who need it.”

Among the other institutions in the archdiocese offering assistance is Regis College in Weston, which has saved 25 admission spots to college students who have been displaced from their schools because of the hurricane. Students who come to Regis College would receive an essentially tuition-free education, with transfers of room and board, financial aid and course credit to be worked out with their home college.

"Regis is working with the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities in Massachusetts (AICUM) and its counterpart organization in Louisiana to respond to the needs of Louisiana colleges as they begin their recovery," Regis College president Dr. Mary Jane England said. "This kind of outreach is simply another expression of our mission. Students from New Orleans and Mississippi colleges can safely continue their education here until the home college is on its feet again," she added.

According to AICUM, it is estimated that approximately 300 students from Massachusetts are registered in New Orleans colleges and at least 50 in Mississippi schools. As of Sept. 6, the first day of classes at Regis College, it was unclear whether any student attending college in the area hit by Katrina had accepted Regis’ offer.

Boston College announced Sept. 6 that it will be accepting “approximately 150 undergraduate students from Loyola and Tulane universities as visiting students through the Woods College of Advancing Studies,” according to an open letter from college president Father William P. Leahy, SJ.

"These individuals will study at Boston College on a non-matriculating basis until their schools reopen, at which time they will return to New Orleans," Father Leahy continued.

About 100 of the students will be housed in St. William’s Hall, one of the properties purchased from the Archdiocese of Boston last year.

In addition to the undergraduate students, BC will also be accepting a small number of graduate students “who otherwise would not be able to advance towards the completion of their degrees,” he said.

See other ways that the Archdiocese is participating in the recovery effort

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