Worshippers in flood-ravaged Rhode Island connect with Easter messages of fresh starts

By Eric Tucker, AP
Sunday, April 4, 2010

Flooded RI residents hear Easter renewal messages

COVENTRY, R.I. — A stream of water pumping from the basement of St. Vincent De Paul Church to the parking lot outside welcomed parishioners arriving for Easter services on Sunday, a lingering reminder of the flooding that devastated this town and others in the Northeast in the past week.

Hundreds of people across Rhode Island, including many in Coventry, were evacuated as deep floodwaters overtook homes and businesses and added to the difficulties of a state mired in a prolonged recession. Residents still are drying out basements and cellars, but many paused from their labor on Sunday to mark Easter — its themes of renewal and fresh beginnings resonating loudly as communities start to recover.

Inside St. Vincent De Paul, where a basement flooded by nearly two feet of water was still being pumped out, the Rev. Michael Kelley seized on the message of hope as he praised congregants for opening their homes to those displaced.

“It’s really impressive to me how many of you have been pulling together — perhaps all of you — to bring new life, strength, perseverance, encouragement to each other,” Kelley said. “Isn’t that what Jesus always wants to inspire us to do?”

Kelley said cleanup after the flood, which Gov. Don Carcieri has called the worst in 200 years with damage that could reach into the hundreds of millions of dollars, would likely seem a never-ending job to many congregants.

“You read about these things in the paper happening in faraway places, but it happened right here,” he said. “We see all the consequences of this.”

Elsewhere, too, the flooding was on the minds of pastors, sometimes in more subtle ways.

At Saint Paul Church in Cranston, a city on the banks of the swollen Pawtuxet River, the Rev. Francis Santilli reminded worshippers of water’s dual nature: able to cause havoc, as it did for days, but also capable of cleansing sins.

“Despite the fact that water has not been a pleasant topic this past week, the church asks us to renew the promises of our baptism today and to be sprinkled with the new Easter water,” Santilli said. “Water is the sign that God is washing away our sins.”

At the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul in Providence, Monsignor Anthony Mancini said he expected some attending the Mass had lost a loved one in the last year, become unemployed or “perhaps were washed away, out of their home by that terrible flood that we just had.”

“This Easter Day,” he said, “we start anew.”

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence has been trying to rally support for flood victims in the nation’s most heavily Catholic state. Jim Jahnz, coordinator of the diocese’s dire emergency program, said Friday he was coordinating with pastors in the West Warwick and Coventry areas to provide assistance to people who need it.

“There’s dirt throughout the street, there’s water pumping out, there’s mattresses on the side of the road,” he said. “It looks like no one was spared as you go down into the valleys.”

The flooding was caused by three straight days of downpours last week, following heavy rains two weeks before that. Providence registered its rainiest month on record in March, with more than 15 inches of rain. The flooding adds to the problems of a state grappling with nearly 13 percent unemployment, one of the highest jobless rates in the country.

The damage remains substantial in places such as Coventry, where Our Lady of Czenstochowa church got about half a foot of water in its the basement. Wood floors and part of the walls probably will have to be replaced, said the Rev. Stephen P. Amaral, the pastor.

David Leroux, 68, and his wife, Joanne, Coventry residents who worship at St. Vincent De Paul, were evacuated for one night amid concern that a bridge near their home would fall into the Pawtuxet and damage several dams downstream. They’ve been pumping water from their cellar since the last major rain more than two weeks ago.

“Because we’re old, we don’t have the physical capabilities of handling it as easily as we did when we were younger,” Leroux said.

But signs of improvement continue.

Forecasters expected the Pawtuxet, which crested at a record 20.79 feet, to return to below flood stage Sunday evening. President Barack Obama has offered continued federal cleanup help, both directions of Interstate 95 remain open after being closed earlier and Amtrak said it would resume nearly full Northeast Regional and Acela service on Monday.

The sun was bright Sunday as services ended at St. Vincent De Paul.

“Every little bit helps,” Leroux said. “The church, the weather, the water receding — it’s all good, it’s all upbeat.”

Associated Press writer Michelle R. Smith contributed to this report.

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