Campbell traveled to Atlanta for a meeting the week before Katrina, and she left instructions not to use the school as a shelter because there would be no one there in charge. As the storm approached, only three Carmelite sisters remained in the Motherhouse.
When water started rising, Campbell’s instructions went by the wayside. Several neighbors got inside the school and hunkered down. As floodwaters continued to rise, the neighbors moved to the upper floors. They ultimately flagged down a boat and helped get the nuns out of the Motherhouse.
"All this time, I was watching reports on TV about the flood. I kept trying to get out of Atlanta, but I couldn’t," Campbell says. "Finally, I got to Jackson, Mississippi, and rented a car so I could drive to Baton Rouge. Then Hurricane Rita hit. A few days later, I managed to drive to New Orleans and get past the National Guardsmen — you know, that old ‘the good sister needs to see her convent’ routine still works — so I could see our school."
What she saw when she arrived was so upsetting that she refused to let parents or students get close. In fact, there was a moment — just one — when Campbell wondered whether the school should even attempt to reopen.
"We knew it was going to be bad because we had seen pictures," she recalls. "But seeing it in person was just heartbreaking. The water was still not out. There were people in boats going up and down Milne Avenue. The whole place was a mess."
Then, two days after her return, Campbell was hospitalized. During the protracted and stressful evacuation, her inability to get regular doses of her heart medication had taken a toll. When she came out of the hospital, she steeled herself for the long and difficult road ahead.
"People asked me, ‘What are we going to do?’" she says, admitting that she wasn’t sure herself at the time. "So I just told them, ‘We have to fix it. If we don’t have the faith to rebuild our school, if the sisters don’t have faith in our community, it puts a big ‘X’ across Lakeview.’ And we just couldn’t do that."
A beautiful story about the determination of a Carmelite sister and the rebuilding of Mount Carmel Academy in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
Another notable piece from the article:
Among all those blessings, one stands out for students, parents, even construction workers: the school’s religious statues all survived intact. “Every statue on our campus survived the flood — and was standing erect when we returned,” Campbell says. “The statue of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, which stands in front of the campus facing Robert E. Lee Boulevard, floated up with the rising water and then back down, erect, right next to its pedestal,” she says solemnly. “And it was still facing Robert E. Lee Boulevard.”
She pauses, then adds for emphasis, “One foot away from her pedestal.”
Simno describes another statue of the Blessed Mother, “one that was light enough for our younger students to carry,” which she says remained on its pedestal, covered in muck and weeds, but unmoved from its perch despite being lightweight. “It was totally submerged in 10 feet of water, yet it never moved,” Simno says. She adds that one of the school’s contractors, a trash hauler from Houston, decided to take the Mt. Carmel job after seeing all the school’s statues right where they belonged shortly after the flood. “He called his wife and said, ‘I have to take this job. There’s something special about this place.’”
WHILE SHOWING A VISITOR AROUND CAMPUS recently, Campbell pauses in front of the school’s coat of arms, which hangs outside the assembly center. Mt. Carmel’s Latin motto, translated, reads, “With zeal am I zealous for the Lord God of Hosts.” As she reaches for a door to enter the building, she turns and says, “This has taken a lot of zeal.”