January 5, 2016, New Orleans, Louisiana – Traditionally, people think of ministry as a full-time, long-term effort by priests, sisters, and lay ministers – as involvement in such areas as education, health care, or parish ministry. But in the past years, sisters and lay men and women have made a difference in the lives of thousands of people through a week-long volunteer effort.
Nuns’ Build was established by Adrian Dominican Sister Mary Keefe, OP, in response to the needs of the people of New Orleans who had been afflicted by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. She moved to New Orleans in November 2007 and came in contact with St. Bernard Project, an organization that focused on rebuilding homes in New Orleans. After hearing about Women’s Build – a project to encourage women to volunteer to rebuild homes and to raise money for families that could not afford the necessary materials – she suggested a similar project, Nuns’ Build.
The first Nuns’ Build was scheduled in early October 2009. Since then, the annual, week-long project – involving Sisters, family members, and parishioners has been held the week before Thanksgiving. Adrian Dominicans have been involved in every Nuns’ Build since.
The most recent Nuns’ Build drew the service of Adrian Dominican Sisters Dorothy (Dot) Dempsey, Carol Elya, Carol Fleming, Jean Keeley, and Joan Mary. Accompanying them were about 15 to 20 parishioners of St. Eulalia Parish in Chicago, as well as friends and relatives of Sister Carol Fleming.
Nuns’ Build is not always an easy, comfortable experience. Both Sisters Dot and Joan spoke of the challenge this year of living in a dormitory-like setting of a homeless shelter, in bunk beds. In previous years, they had stayed in houses set aside for the use of the volunteers.
Nuns’ Build also involves hard, physical labor, from 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. each day. Sister Dot and Sister Joan spent the week working on the windows of the house assigned to them – scraping paint off the windows inside and out, washing the windows throughout the house – as well as working on the molding and putting the primer on the window sills.
“We really made a big start,” said Sister Dot, who has served in eight Nuns’ Build weeks. She added that the family had been expected to move back into their home by Christmas.
Sister Joan, who has brought in at least 15 to 20 parishioners from St. Eulalia’s each year to participate in Nuns’ Build, said she explains to the parishioners that their work was “helping poor families, senior citizens, who didn’t have the money to rebuild” after Katrina. “Our volunteering was providing the labor costs so that they wouldn’t have to pay that.”
While much work remains to be done, the Sisters spoke of the progress that they had noted over the years. “New Orleans looks so much better than it did when we started seven years ago,” Sister Joan said. Sister Dot has also seen improvement in the transportation system, which is again running, and in the return of the street signs.
In particular, Nuns’ Build makes a difference in the lives of people whose homes were rebuilt. Every year, the Nuns’ Build experience has included a ribbon-cutting for newly restored houses as the family prepares to move back home. Sister Joan especially remembers the case of a grandfather who had lost his portion of a two-family “shotgun” house to Katrina. Through the efforts of the St. Bernard Project and Nuns’ Build volunteers, he was finally able to move into a single-family house. She recalled with joy how much the man beamed at being welcomed into his new home – and the joyful gathering and welcoming spirit of his neighbors.
Nuns’ Build has also brought a sense of community among the volunteers. “The secret to the success of Nuns’ Build is that we bonded as a group over the years to be a family working together,” Sister Joan said. “We shared everything and worked together.”
The volunteers also feel connected to the people of New Orleans and a sense of their welcome and gratitude. The local Knights of Columbus hold a special dinner for Nuns’ Build volunteers and provide lunch two days during the week, Sister Dot explained. She added that the Adrian Dominican Sisters who live in community on Short Street in New Orleans also welcome all of the Dominican Sisters – not only Adrian Dominicans – to their home for prayer and an ice cream social.
If you have participated in Nuns’ Build and would like to share your experience, please click on “read more” and leave a comment.
I enjoyed the experience, and was especially moved by being able to help welcome a resident back into her home after its restoration. Her story was quite incredible. Before going there, my only qualification was watching HGTV! But I became quite adept at caulking, and trim-work. I went because I wanted the people of New Orleans to know that they had not been forgotten.
I have completed 7 Nun's Build weeks and I will always remember the local Sisters who take good care of us while we are there. We have been lucky enough to stay with the Marianites of Holy Cross several times. It is also a great time to connect with Sisters from other communities who come back each year. As S Joan said we work hard, but we work together.