Oct. 13-19, 2005
Fr. Doug Cunningham, left, with two fellow Air National Guard members that travelled to New Orleans to help victims of Hurricane Katrina
By Luke Eggleston/ SUN staff writer
SUN photo(s) Submitted
The soldiers called him “Bones.” Not because he loved finding them, chewing on them or burying them like many dogs.
They named him Bones because the stray and deserted dog had withered to little more than taught skin stretched over his Boxer’s frame.
Nine days after Hurricane Katrina lashed Louisiana and the levees broke, flooding New Orleans, Father Douglas Cunningham accompanied the 104th Fighter Wing of the Air National Guard out of Massachusetts. There he found and rescued Bones. “The military police found it and when I came to the area that people can check in he was literally stumbling across the yard. He could barely stand,” Father Cunningham said. Like the partially submerged city in which the priest found him, Bones was considered beyond hope. Not because he was on the verge of death, but the crisis was so overwhelming.
“The vet said that he was in such bad shape that they would probably have to put him down because they couldn’t care for someone who needed help that badly,” the priest from Norwich’s Church of the Apostles said. Days later, Bones, like the men and women and children around him, was on his way to a new state and perhaps a new life. Bones went from Baton Rouge to Denver to Chicago and, finally, to Syracuse in a crate stamped “Hurricane Survivor.” Now he is in the care of Father Cunningham’s father in Pompey. “He’s a wonderful dog. Very gentle, very quiet, very playful at times,” Father Cunningham said. Father Cunningham has built his life around rescuing and caring for the unfortunates of the world. He doesn’t deal in saving souls alone, but also in their earthly carriages.
His two sons are orphans from China, Alexander, 13 and DJ (Donald John), 11. Although Father Cunningham knew he desired a family, his motivations were augmented by a will to put church teaching into action. “I’ve always felt that talk is cheap and it’s easy to say that this is how we should do things and this is how we should live and the Church can say this is what we should do, but certainly you’ve got to put your money where your mouth is,” the priest said. “I wanted a family, I love children, but I also felt that this was my way of helping two kids who have no chance of having a family.” It was that sense of putting compassion into action that drove Father Cunningham to rejoin the Air National Guard and ultimately compelled him to venture to Orleans Parish to help the many victims of Hurricane Katrina still trapped there. Father Cunningham was notified Friday, Sept. 2 that he would be called upon to go to New Orleans and he had to be in Cape Cod at Otis Air Force Base Sunday, Sept. 4. By Monday, Sept. 5, Father Cunningham was aboard a C-130 transport plane as part of a joint rescue operation that included both Air Force and Army personnel. Father Cunningham’s presence was crucial because the area the group was going into, Orleans Parish, is heavily Catholic and the Guard was having considerable trouble finding available priests.
The group landed at Bellchase Naval Air Station in Louisiana and stayed overnight there on a flight line. The following morning, the priest was included in a military convoy bound for the heart of New Orleans. Some nine days had passed since Hurricane Katrina had brought the Big Easy to its knees. He had seen the coverage of the hurricane on television; the flooding, the looting, but none of that prepared Father Cunningham for confronting the reality of what had become of New Orleans.
“You’ve seen it on the news and all that with the Convention Center and the [Superdome], but it’s nothing like when you see it in person,” he said. “As soon as we drove into the city, I felt like I was in the twilight zone. There were absolutely no people. Here’s this big city and it’s absolutely empty.” Father Cunningham said that while the smell of sewage was pervasive, a different and foul odor would often creep into his nostrils. Finally, one of the soldiers with him explained that it was the smell of decomposing bodies.
For the survivors and the soldiers, Father Cunningham provided some semblance of normalcy by celebrating daily Mass. “For some of the guardsmen, it was the first time they’d been to Mass in years,” he said. “I think it was such a powerful thing for them that I think they knew that they needed something at that time as well. So there was great stability drawn from people going to Mass.” Father Cunningham also used Mass to bring hope to the soldiers as well as the survivors in the ruined city. He tried to make sure that people were able to draw upon hope and prayer even in such a hopeless environment.
“I would celebrate Mass every day in different parts of the city and I would tell the different ones that prayer is what brought us to that city — that the people of that city were crying out to God and their prayers were heard,” he said. “One of the ways that God answered their prayers was by sending the National Guard. And our way of getting through this experience was also through prayer.” Far from having his faith shaken by
the tragedy in New Orleans, Father Cunningham found a new source of inspiration in working with the National Guard. “If anything, my faith became stronger because of this, because while it was awful, it was very uplifting being with this group of young men and women who were working so hard to help other people and it just showed me the goodness of other people,” he said. “What I saw in action down there was God stepping in to do a lot of powerful things and that made me feel a lot better about my faith and where I’m at.” That said, like many of the soldiers and many television viewers throughout the nation, Father Cunningham was somewhat disturbed at the lethargic response to the crisis by the federal government and its counterparts at the state and local levels. Father Cunningham’s group was the first one to enter Orleans Parish and that was nine days after the hurricane had struck.
“I was glad we were going in, but it was really disheartening that we were the first group going in and that it had taken nine days,” he said.