NEW ORLEANS – Sister Paula Gonzalez — dressed in sweats and sneakers — was directing a fellow nun to the ceiling of a closet — the last area in need of insulation before the group begins hanging drywall in a house that has stood empty since Hurricane Katrina flooded it.
"We're all glad to be done with that nasty stuff," Gonzalez said. "Everyone has been itching for days."
Gonzalez, 78, of Cincinnati, is one of 86 nuns from various Roman Catholic orders around the United States and Canada who took part in the latest edition of Nuns Build. The program, begun in 2009, brings nuns to New Orleans twice a year to help rebuild houses flooded by Katrina in 2005, but are structurally sound and can be renovated.
There are still thousands of the houses in the metropolitan area. Many were owned by elderly or poor people without flood insurance and left with no means of reclaiming their homes.
The nuns worked with the St. Bernard Project, a nonprofit disaster recovery organization dedicated to rebuilding homes destroyed by Katrina.
The nuns have been part more than 23,000 volunteers have helped St. Bernard Project rebuild 319 families' homes. Money for the supplies is raised through donations.
In the latest effort, the nuns worked on 17 houses — swinging hammers, working saws, insulating, hanging drywall, painting, putting in flooring and installing doors and windows.
"We do it all," laughed Sister Winnie Brubach, 64, of Cincinnati, as she taped insulation into a closet ceiling. "We just showed up and started in on what they told us to do."
The sisters finished up their stay working at Patricia Gardner's home in the Gentilly section of New Orleans. The house, which was flooded to the roof by the failure of the city's levees following Katrina, was gutted when they arrived. By the time they left at the end of the week, the house had been completely insulated and ceilings and walls covered with dry wall.
"It will be one of our 'Homes for the Holidays' houses," said Amanda Catalani of the St. Bernard Project, said. The agency is working to have 25 houses restored in time for families to return to them before Christmas. A group of volunteers will pick up where the nuns left off at the end of their stay.
"It's doable, definitely doable," Catalani said. "We could use more volunteers, but we have 13 done so we believe we will get them all done."
The nuns working on Gardner's house ranged in age from 62 to 78. All acknowledged that when they entered their orders as young women they would never have imagined themselves involved in such a project.
Every nun working in the house wore full habits when they took orders.
"We were all in the penguin suits," said Sister Luke Boiarski, 62, of Nazareth, Ky., who was dressed in a T-shirt and jeans for the manual labor.
The voluminous habits with the starched wimples and veils were never questioned, said Sister Joyce Richter, 76, a teacher who now works in information technology and builds websites.
"We just thought 'This is our life,'" Richter said. "But over the years the changes have been drastic. It's been very freeing to put the habits away. I can't imagine us taking on something like this wearing them."
The nuns learned their construction skills on the job, they said.
"This is the first time I did this in my life," said Anita Gagnon, 75, of Halifax, Nova Scotia, as she helped put wall board on a bathroom ceiling. "Wait until I go home and tell my brothers."
St. Bernard Project: http://www.stbernardproject.org