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After Katrina, WNY native brought faith back to his New Orleans parish

After almost two years of helping his parishioners cope with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Jamestown native Joseph Campion offered some of them the chance to take a much needed break.

Campion, a Catholic priest who heads a parish in New Orleans, led a group of 30 parishioners on a 19-hour trip to his home turf -- Western New York -- for the 10th National Black Catholics Congress, which is in Buffalo this weekend.

For Royce Williams Jr., 19, one of the parishioners, the chance to make friends and play basketball with Campion's brothers was a lot of fun.

Williams lost his house and most of his personal possessions in Hurricane Katrina. After the storm, all of his friends left New Orleans. They are now scattered throughout the country.

"I needed to make all new friends," he said. "The trip has been good for that."

Helping parishioners rebuild their lives has been Campion's focus since the 2005 hurricane destroyed his church in New Orleans' lower ninth ward, along with the homes of most of his parishioners.

It hasn't been easy. He has watched his congregation shrink from 600 regulars to 150, as people move out of the city. He has worked tirelessly to repair the water damage that has made the building in which he once served Mass uninhabitable.

But throughout the struggle, he has kept his faith and the faith of his parish alive.

"I've seen a lot of people question their faith" since Katrina, he said. "But they always come out stronger."

Campion grew up in the kind of Irish Catholic family that wears its faith on its sleeve, he said. Like most of his siblings, he attended a Catholic high school and university -- in his case Le Moyne College, a Jesuit school in Syracuse.

He majored in business -- not theology -- and took a job in restaurant management after graduating. But soon after, he began to feel like he had a different calling, he said. He started attending church more regularly and struggling silently with the question of whether he should join the priesthood.

One day, the answer became clear.

"I was driving to a job interview in Buffalo," he said. "I turned around, went back home to my dad's office and told him that I couldn't take the interview because I was going to become a priest."

By then he had already applied to and been accepted by the Josephites, an order dedicated to working with poor and black communities. He entered a seminary in 1985 and was ordained in 1991. He spent a few years preaching in Jamestown before he was transferred to New Orleans, where he ran St. David Catholic Church and served as youth minister at St. Augustine High School.

He settled into life there quickly.

"I got to really like the city," he said. "Even the heat . . . now I complain that it's too cold up here."

But he made regular trips back to Western New York. In late August 2005, he returned to Jamestown for his brother's wedding. From here, he watched as Hurricane Katrina tore his church apart.

"I couldn't believe what I was seeing," he said.

He returned immediately to the city to help parishioners, such as 17-year-old Elijah Reynolds, who remembers coming home with his mother and older brother to find his house destroyed.

"My pictures, basketball, it was all gone," Reynolds said.

Most of Campion's other parishioners faced similar problems.

"All of them lost their homes," he said.

Campion quickly began to take action, calling and going door-to-door to see who was left and who needed help.

"He called everyone," Williams said. "Then he went around and took a census."

As the months wore on, parishioners said, Campion began to volunteer with others to gut houses and mow abandoned lawns in the neighborhood. He also found the congregation a temporary new home.

"He wouldn't stop unless we stopped," said Reynolds, who runs his youth group and often volunteered with Campion. "I felt like I needed to come back to the city . . . I was glad to be able to help."

Now, over two years later, things are starting to show some signs of improvement at St. David's.

In two weeks, Campion's old church should reopen. Some residents are slowly moving back home.

And the five-day trip Campion organized to Buffalo has brought old and new members of the parish together.

Most important though, he has helped his parishioners maintain their faith. When Williams first returned after Katrina, he had trouble believing.

Williams said he struggled to understand how God could do this to his city.

He turned to Campion for answers.

"He really calmed me down," Williams said. "Now I'm doing OK."


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