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Priest from N. Orleans focuses on hope

The Rev. Anthony Rigoli fears reality may be setting in among his displaced parishioners in New Orleans.

Many of them lost not just their homes, but whole neighborhoods. And they have no idea when -- or even if -- they'll see those neighborhoods again.

"There's a depression there, because you're surrounded by a death culture," said Rigoli, a Buffalo native who serves as assistant pastor of Our Lady of Guadalupe Chapel in the French Quarter.

In addition, he said: "People are afraid. Four months from now, in June, we're going to have hurricane season again."

Rigoli was in Buffalo last week leading a Lenten retreat at St. Rose of Lima Church in North Buffalo.

The theme of the retreat is "Flood, Sweat and Tears," and Rigoli is using it as an opportunity to talk about hope despite events like Hurricane Katrina, which caused devastating flooding along the coasts of Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi last summer.

Rigoli, a member of the Oblate order of Catholic priests, formerly served as an assistant pastor at St. Rose of Lima.

Since 2001, he has been at Our Lady of Guadalupe, a historic chapel and International Shrine of St. Jude on the edge of the French Quarter, near Canal Street and New Orleans' famous cemeteries.

Sixty percent of the church's 500 parishioners evacuated during the hurricane and haven't returned, Rigoli said. Most of those who came back when the church reopened Oct. 23 are living in hotels.

The church, which seats about 400, still fills up for weekend Masses because 30 other Catholic churches in New Orleans remain closed, seven of them permanently, Rigoli said. It serves as a central gathering place now more than ever, he said, with people often stumbling upon neighbors and friends they haven't seen since the hurricane struck.

Rigoli said he tries to console people simply by listening and, at times, crying along with them.

The recent Mardi Gras, which drew an estimated 300,000 people to New Orleans, was a hopeful sign, he added.

Residents held cheerful cookouts on the grassy medians of the streets.

"There was a spirit among the people," he said. "It was what was needed in the city."

e-mail: jtokasz@buffnews.com

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