When Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29, 2005, the devastation and chaos it left behind were on a scale that Americans had never seen before.
New Orleans was especially hard hit, as the city that sits below sea level was flooded by Katrina’s heavy rains, tidal surges and shattered sea walls.
Among those that faced the most severe challenges were religious orders of Catholic nuns, many of which had been serving in New Orleans’ poorest neighborhoods for centuries. The Ursuline Sisters, for example, arrived in the Crescent City in 1727, half a century before the United States became a nation.
In 2010, Sister Judy Zielinski, a veteran filmmaker and Sylvania Franciscan nun, was approached by a Cincinnati-based Catholic foundation to make a documentary about the nuns whose lives and ministries were battered by Katrina.
Her film, “We Shall Not Be Moved: The Catholic Sisters of New Orleans,” will be shown at 4 p.m. Sunday (Nov. 18) at the Franciscan Center Theater in the Sylvania Franciscan Village.
The documentary was one that Sister Judy hesitated to undertake because the stories of Katrina victims, as difficult and dramatic as they are, have been told so many times in so many different ways.
“It’s not that I didn’t want to do it, but you always have concerns: ‘How are we going to shoot this? What’s the story? What’s the hook? What’s going to make people want to watch this and stay with us?’” Sister Judy said in a recent interview.
“I knew this couldn’t be just a brick-and-mortar rebuilding story. We’ve seen plenty of that, especially in New Orleans. Everybody’s story was basically the same: There was a storm, we were flooded, we rebuilt, now we’re back in business. Not to be cavalier, but how can we go beyond this basic story line?”
Sister Judy knew she needed the sisters to open up to the camera and share the complex and often conflicting thoughts and feelings, the dreams and doubts, they were left with in Katrina’s wake.
The nuns’ orders had been accustomed to conducting their ministries -- from medical and educational to providing food and other basic needs to the poor -- on minimal funding and huge amounts of faith.
And like most Catholic sisters’ groups today, the six religious orders featured in “We Shall Not Be Moved” are declining in numbers and have aging memberships.
Their convents, high schools and outreach centers had been buried under 10 feet of water, pummeled by 125-mph winds and left in heaps of mud-covered ruins.
They bared their souls to Sister Judy about the doubts they had on whether they could, or should, rebuild in New Orleans.
Sister Mary Kay Kinberger, a nurse and the superior general of the Marianites of Holy Cross, had to evacuate the motherhouse in the city’s Ninth Ward, one of the poorest and most severely flooded neighborhoods.
“It smelled like death,” she said, describing the scene after returning a few days later. “It was like a pall of death everywhere.”
Sister Kathleen Pittman of the Congregation of St. Joseph was struck by the lack of any sound in the storm's aftermath.
“It was surreal, like a movie,” she said. “No birds. No animal life. Nothing. Just eerie silence.”
“What are we going to do … is this a sign from God not to be here?” asked Sister Isabel Ordono of the Society of St. Teresa of Jesus.
When her order began receiving checks, mostly donations from other nuns throughout the United States, the nuns went forward with rebuilding.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Sister Isabel said. “To me, until the day I die, Katrina will always be a synonym for the generosity of the people of the United States.”
Sister Beth Fitzpatrick, the mother superior of the Congregation of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, also wondered if it was God’s will for her order of nuns to rebuild.
The order had operated a large high school in New Orleans’ Lakeview neighborhood.
“There were voices saying, ‘Why ever did you live here anyway? Whoever heard of living below sea level? Why did Mother Clare build a motherhouse that was once on swampland? Why, why, why? We were filled with whys,’” Sister Beth said in the film.
Ultimately, the Carmelites felt they must continue their mission and help their neighbors who also had been traumatized by Katrina.
“Part of what drew us back,” Sister Beth said, “was, you know, if we come back, if we provide something of the beauty and goodness and love that was here before, then others will come. If you build it, they will come … maybe? Or is that really imprudent and stupid and Pollyanna?”
“We Shall Not Be Moved” includes news video footage of the storm and its aftermath, satellite shots and other views by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, as well as amateur photos and videos taken by nuns and their neighbors.
The Carmelites’ motherhouse became a refuge in the storm as neighbors maneuvered boats through flooded streets, dropping displaced people off at the nuns’ front steps.
The sisters set a goal of reopening their high school by the next semester, and with donations from people around the world – from one envelope containing two one-dollar bills to $300,000 from a Saudi sheikh – they reached what seemed to be an impossible goal, reopening in February, 2006.
The first day of classes in the rebuilt high school was a landmark moment for students, staff and the hard-hit community.
“It was apparent we were loved, and you can go through anything if you know you are loved,” Sister Beth said.
Sister Judy, who works for NewGroup Media in South Bend, Ind., specializes in making films on faith and values. Her previous documentary, “Interrupted Lives: Catholic Sisters Under European Communism,” was released in 2010.
After she returned from New Orleans to South Bend, Sister Judy pored through 26 hours of interviews plus news and NOAA video of Katrina, realizing that “I had an embarrassment of riches” for a documentary.
The movie first aired on ABC channels across the United States in October and is now available on DVD. Information is available online at weshallnotbemovedmovie.com.
“I was very touched by these sisters and they did,” Sister Judy said. “One of the nice things this will do for viewers is allow them to meet sisters in a very human, personal way, and hear them and experience them up close and personal.”
“We Shall Not Be Moved: The Catholic Sisters of New Orleans,” will be shown at 4 p.m. Sunday (Nov. 18) at the Franciscan Center Theater, 6832 Convent Blvd., Sylvania. Admission is free.