Houston’s kayaking priest wanted to get across ‘God is still with us!’
John L. Allen Jr. and Inés San Martín Sep 6, 2017
When a major disaster strikes, the drama it unleashes is always composed of thousands of individual stories — the tragedy of a sudden death, the luck of a near-miss or improbable escape, the fear of people suddenly separated from loved ones or homes, and the heroism of those who risk their own safety to help others.
Such has been the case again in parts of Texas devastated by Hurricane Harvey over the last few days.
Within that mosaic of individual experiences, one of the most novel surely belongs to Father David Bergeron, a French-Canadian and member of the Companions of the Cross religious order who’s stationed with a few fellow priests at Houston’s large Catholic Charismatic Center. (He’s sort of a living witness to the universality of Catholicism — a French-speaker in an English-speaking country, serving a population that’s 80 percent Hispanic and Spanish-speaking.)
Father Bergeron ended up stranded in his truck on an area highway Saturday night. Sunday morning, he awoke and naturally wanted to say Mass, but there was no congregation on his overpass. So, the enterprising young priest broke out the kayak that was in the back of his pickup and set off, hoping to find a place where he could buy a bit of wine to round out his on-the-go Mass kit.
Father Bergeron did locate an open convenience store, but ran afoul of a ban on alcohol sales on Sundays until noon. (That, by the way, may say something about the resilience of Houstonians — amid a near-apocalypse, order still had to be upheld and the ban was honored, even for a priest!)
His plans to say Mass foiled, Bergeron paddled up and down nearby streets anyway, checking to make sure people were OK. He was usually able to get as close as the driveways of their homes, and shouted greetings across their lawns — reassuring them, as he put it, that “God is still with us.”
Video images of him navigating up and down streets were captured by Houston TV stations, and turned the self-effacing Bergeron into something of a local insta-celebrity.
Father Bergeron gave an interview to John L. Allen and Inés San Martín Aug. 28 for their “The Crux of the Matter” weekly radio show on the Catholic Channel, Sirius XM 129.
As we understand it, you were somewhere Saturday night watching the Mayweather-McGregor fight, and, when you tried to get home, you got stuck and ended up spending the night in your truck. The next morning was Sunday, and naturally you wanted to say Mass, but there was no way you were getting back to your parish, so you came up with a novel idea, didn’t you?
Father Bergeron: Yes, exactly. I was visiting my brother, who also lives in Houston. After the fight, I thought I would get home and get some rest, since I was scheduled to have the Sunday morning Mass. But I wasn’t able to make it past an overpass near my exit, which is about three miles away from home. My pickup became my home for the night! I took a few naps in between storms. The alarms of rescue vehicles trying to get to people who were in greater danger than I was.
When I woke up, I happened to have my kayak with me, because I do a lot of kayaking, and we could finally see a little bit. There wasn’t much sun, but a little more hope and less uncertainty. I decided I’d go out and see if I could find some people who were stranded and needed me to say Mass.
I found a convenience store that was open. They’d been open the whole night, since they weren’t able to leave because it was flooded in, so I went there. Usually I have my Mass kit with me, so I’m ready for a private Mass if I need to or if I’m stranded somewhere, although I never thought I’d use it too much. I use it sometimes for my day off, but at that time I didn’t have any wine. Of course, there’s the first miracle of Cana, but I wasn’t able to transform any of that water into wine!
So you went into the convenience store, and they explained there’s actually a ban in Houston on selling alcohol on Sunday mornings, right?
Yes, they told me they couldn’t sell it until noon. I still bought some food, because at home we didn’t have much food at the time. I wasn’t able to say Mass but I was able to make a purchase and to bring the food to my brother priests here.
My brother priests and I try not to take ourselves too seriously, but to take God seriously, and we try to see beauty even in fickle situations. I knew there were a lot of people going through much harder situations than I was.
By the way, a brother priest had also used other kayaks in our streets that famous night of the fight [to check on people.] When I got back, I was able to be reunited with him, and we were able to go out and buy some more food as the water had receded in some places.
Yesterday was a long day … I’ve had a good night’s sleep, thank God.
I found out that what had happened [while I was gone] is that we have a priest who uses a breathing machine during the night. He had moved to a hotel before the storm, thinking that it would be very safe and not lose power, but it was the first hotel where the power went down!
Is he OK?
He’s OK now, yes. He was staying on the fifth floor of the hotel and they were out of power, and obviously the elevators weren’t working. It’s Father Ed Wade, who’s a great priest and also an ex-marine, so once a marine, always a marine!
Meaning he’s tough, right?
Yeah, he’s a tough guy. We were able to help him with his lower mobility to get down the stairs. We got a shuttle to pick him up, but we thought it was going to pull up directly in front of the hotel but it couldn’t, so he would have had to walk for maybe a half-mile through mushy grass. It’s in a sector of town right beside Hobby Airport, the second-biggest airport here.
What did you do this morning?
This morning there was a little bit of calm here, so with the help of Father Mark Goring, a fellow priest here, we hopped in his car. We went first to see our church at the Catholic Charismatic Center. It has a little bit of water, but we know lots of people are in much worse situations.
After having toured our place and making sure everything was somewhat fine, we went back to the hotel to check on our brother priest. We woke him up. He was sleeping well, because he hadn’t slept too much the night before, and we were able to bring him safely home with his other brother priests.
You told a local TV station that even though it was a little weird to be kayaking around the streets of Houston looking to say Mass, you’re French-Canadian, and the original missionaries in your part of the world got around by canoe, so in a way this was fairly natural.
In Rome they say, ‘All roads lead to Rome.’ In Canada, it’s ‘All roads lead to wherever the river leads!’ I hope that my few visits to people’s homes, or at least close to their driveways, was able to just reassure people that God is still with us.
I was thinking that there are some psalms where we pray for the Lord’s mercy and the outpouring of his water to cleanse us from our sins. By now, however, I don’t think there’s much left to repent for, and we need to ask for the Lord’s mercy in not sending his waters anymore and give us some dry weather!