Thirty volunteers from St. Stephen's Parish in Olds went to help St. Francis de Sales Parish in High River on July 3 and another 40 three days later.
When Catholics from St. Stephen's Parish in Olds saw the devastation in High River they decided they had to do something. Armed with shovels, generators and power-washers, they went down to the flooded town twice this month to help clean up the mess.
Their main focus was the local Catholic church – St. Francis de Sales – which at one point had had nearly a metre of water inside. But parishioners also helped clean up private homes.
"I guess we were just moved by what was happening (in High River) and felt that it was the right thing to do to because that's what the Eucharist calls us to do," said Maureen Gustafson, who initiated the project.
"We felt that their parishioners would be overwhelmed with their circumstances and that the priest must be overwhelmed without support.
"I'm just humbled, I guess, that there were enough people in our parish that were willing to kind of step out of their comfort zone to come and help."
Close to 80 volunteers from St. Stephen and missions went to High River July 3 and July 6 – more than 30 the first time, 40 the second.
"Their church was flooded as well as two rental houses the parish owns for low-income housing," explained Gustafson, who went with her husband Joe.
"We helped to clean out the church and these two homes. We removed the pews and pressure-washed them and removed all the carpeting in the church." Thick deposits of dark silt lined the ruined carpets and walls.
The church's hall kitchen was basically destroyed "so we cleaned that out and cleaned the mud out of the rest of the rooms. We had some help removing some drywall."
The work crew brought all the hymnals from St. Francis de Sales and their library books back to Olds for safekeeping until the church is restored. They also brought all the altar linens and the vestments back to Olds to dry-clean them.
PHOTO | JOE GUSTAFSON
The volunteers from central Alberta emptied out the devastated High River church to make way for future renovations.
Parishioners from St. Francis are currently celebrating Sunday Mass in the United Church in Blackie, a nearby hamlet.
Father Edward Hospet, the parish pastor, was evacuated to Okotoks for the first two weeks but is now back in High River and goes to the church regularly. He worked hand-in-hand with the volunteers the two times they were there.
"We had seen the devastation on TV but when you see it personally the impact is much, much greater," Gustafson said.
"You can't find words to describe what the town is facing. You just feel for the people and wonder how they will ever get their lives back again. To have a whole town devastated is something different."
Theresa Coupal, chair of the pastoral council, said parishioners from Olds and the missions of Didsbury and Sundre participated in the cleanup.
"We went because there was a need," she said matter-of-factly. "We support initiatives all over the world where people are having devastation and war, and these people (in High River) are on our doorstep."
Coupal said it is "really sad" to see the devastation caused by the flooding. "I mean, it's sort of numbing when you go there. It's just unbelievable. People's lives are turned upside down.
"The recovery is going to take years because the whole town, the business core, everything, was all shutdown (when we were there). There was nothing, absolutely no services."
Coupal said when the Olds volunteers arrived, the water had already receded from the one-level church but basements in the neighbourhood were still filled with water.
The volunteers took generators with them "because there was no power in the church and we took we took power washers, shovels and everything we needed."
The moved all the pews outside and pressure-washed them and then they cut out the gyprock from about four feet down because that had all been damaged.
"We cleaned out the kitchen," explained Coupal. "Everything from the countertop down in the kitchen had to be demolished because there would be mould."
PHOTO | JOE GUSTAFSON
Parishioners from Olds and the parish's missions in Sundre and Didsbury will return to High River again if their help is still needed.
Canned goods from the parish's food bank were basically sanitized and put up in high shelves.
Three days later, on Saturday, July 6, the Olds volunteers returned and removed the altar and pressure-washed the whole nave of the church to prepare it for renovations.
A number of the volunteers went into the basement and the yards of the two rental houses owned by the parish.
"We basically removed everything from the basement; most of it had to be demolished and we piled it up in front of the houses," explained Coupal.
"We had to take everything out of the basement, cut out the gyprock and take the insulation out because that was all contaminated."
Because there were so many volunteers, "some of us went to private homes (to help)," explained Coupal. "They would have signs in their windows saying 'volunteers needed' and personally, with my daughter and granddaughter, spent all afternoon on Saturday in a private home. When you have 40 people, you really get a lot done."
She said all the fridges had to be destroyed. "You didn't even open them because they'd had no power for two weeks so everything in them would be spoiled and smelly. So basically they just duct-taped them and moved them out."
All of the appliances in the church were thrown away as well, including the dishwasher and the stove "because they were completely contaminated."
Volunteers from Olds and missions will return to High River if their help is needed again. In the meantime, they have initiated a fundraiser for the Town of High River which will run until about mid-September.