From the Jan/Feb issue of Long Island Catholic Magazine

Father Brian Barr arrived as pastor of St. Mary of the Isle in Long Beach barely two weeks before Hurricane Sandy devastated the city.

Ironically, the pastor he was replacing, Bishop Robert Brennan, would be called upon by Bishop Murphy to coordinate the diocese’s Island-wide response to the hurricane.

Touring some of the hardest-hit areas in the days immediately following the Oct. 29 storm, Bishop Brennan described Long Beach and Island Park as probably the most upsetting scenes he encountered, with “everything water-compromised,” hampering clean up efforts; people’s clothing, furniture and personal belongings turned to garbage piled in the streets; and, in Long Beach, sand having been swept from the dunes into streets and buildings, to the point that the city was “using snow plows” to clear it.

Throughout Long Island, Bishop Brennan explained, hurricane relief efforts involved three phases: meeting emergency needs; then clean-up, short-term reconstruction and connecting immediate needs to available resources; and finally, long-term rebuilding and future planning — of lives, families, homes, schools, businesses and institutions. Father Barr and St. Mary’s Parish confronted all three in short order.

The church and parish hall suffered major damage from flooding. Extensive rebuilding would have to wait, but space in the parish hall had to be cleared immediately so the parish could help provide emergency services — “triage,” Father Brian called it — for suffering people in the community.

Normally, he noted, parishioners can be expected to “jump in” when others are in trouble. But, in this case, “so many people were trying to clean up their own disaster areas, we couldn’t expect them to run to help the church.” Nevertheless, he said, some did, including a group of retired men who regularly help out at the parish, and who “really stepped up” after the storm, helping with clean-up and with coordinating the parish’s collection and distribution of food, clothing, blankets and other needed items.

St. Mary’s was able to set up a collection and distribution center in the parish hall, offer Mass in the hall every day at noon, and serve a hot lunch to people right after Mass.

“This is the Church doing exactly what it’s called to do,” Father Brian said; “meeting people’s corporal needs,” but also caring for them spiritually, especially in difficult times.

“We’re open every day,” he said, “offering the sacraments.”

Critical to making it all possible was the outpouring of outside support — not only from around Long Island, but from other parts of the country.

People from states that were impacted by Hurricane Katrina, and received help from the Diocese of Rockville Centre, reciprocated, Father Brian explained, sending supplies and donations. “And we had trucks arrive from North Carolina and Denver. People who collected things on their own — water, food, blankets, clothing — and then just drove them to Long Island.”

From across Long Island help poured in, as well. Our Lady of Victory in Floral Park, where Father Brian celebrated Sunday Masses before coming to Long Beach, collected clothes and food for St. Mary’s — as did some other parishes from around the state. Young volunteers from Holy Trinity Diocesan High School (see related story) and SS. Cyril and Methodius Parish in Deer Park came in to help with the clean-up. Father Brian’s various leadership roles for the diocese, in campus ministry and vocations, drew support from the campus ministries at Hofstra and Adelphi and from seminarians currently studying at the Immaculate Conception Center in Douglaston.

“The basement” of the parish hall “is huge,” he explained, and was “stuffed with junk” that had accumulated over several decades and now, watered-damaged, was much more difficult to clean out.

“The college kids went in and just attacked it, and cleaned up in four to five hours what normally would have taken days.”

A top priority for the immediate future is obviously restoring the church building. “A lot depends on how much we get” from insurance coverage, Father Brian noted. “The place is struggling financially already,” and is just reaching the end of a capital campaign initiated by then-Msgr. Brennan to cover previously needed improvements.

“It’s hard to talk to people now about donations,” Father Brian observed, when they’re struggling to clean out and restore their own homes.

But he is “impressed with the people” of his new parish, “their resolve.

“People are sad,” he said, at the damage to the church and the devastation all around them; “but with every sad conversation, you also hear, ‘We’re alive, we have the things that matter most, things will get better.’
“They know,” he said, “that Long Beach will come back.”