BATON ROUGE, La. (CNS) -- A much loved New Orleans priest who stayed with his church as Hurricane Katrina took aim at southeastern Louisiana is presumed to have drowned in the storm's floodwaters.
Father Arthur "Red" Ginart, known to his flock of worshippers as "Father Red" and considered the "shepherd of Lake Catherine," would not listen to family and friends who appealed to him to leave his church for safety.
The priest, pastor of St. Nicholas of Myra Church, tried to assure everyone that he would be safe. He lived on the New Orleans East peninsula.
Late on the night before the Aug. 29 storm a volunteer firefighter tried to convince Father Ginart to leave, but he scoffed at the warning. "God will be my shepherd," he said.
His nephew, Michael Ginart of Chalmette, phoned the priest at 3:30 a.m. the morning of the storm. He said he told his uncle that it looked like this was "it."
"He said to me if things started looking bad he'd go to the archdiocese building," Michael Ginart recalled. "He said he had eight people with him trying to hold on. Of course, there was no one with him. He was not beyond telling little white lies to make people feel better."
A month after the hurricane hit, Father Ginart, 64, remained missing and is now presumed dead, the only resident of Lake Catherine to become a victim of the hurricane.
Neither he nor his trailer home has been found, although a firefighter reported having seen his remains. Another report indicated his body was sent to a morgue in St. Gabriel, a small community in the civil entity of Ascension Parish, but an inspection of storm casualties failed to verify that Father Ginart's corpse was among them.
The community of Lake Catherine is a nine-mile strip of land split by U.S. Highway 90, also known as Chef Menteur Highway. On either side are recreational and residential camps. To the north, the waters of Lake Pontchartrain splash the shoreline, and on the south side Lake Catherine's waves rise and ebb with the tides.
Katrina effectively erased all but six camps, according to resident and St. Nicholas parishioner Bernadine Harvey. The area is now a grassy land of stumps that testify to the wrath of Katrina's Category 4 winds and surge of water from Lake Pontchartrain that was said to be as high as 27 feet.
The brick walls of St. Nicholas were swept away with Father Ginart apparently still inside. Just the wooden frame of the building, erected on pilings in 1971, still stands. The light fixtures are filled with contaminated water. The toilet was torn from the floor.
Part of Father Ginart's mobile home was found nearby with a few of his personal effects and little else -- an archdiocesan Catholic directory, a 1966 school yearbook, a bottle of grape juice, a Sherlock Holmes DVD and his automobile.
Harvey, a member of the St. Nicholas Altar Society, said she and other parishioners had found a few artifacts.
"(A statue of) Mary is there. ... I think there are two Marys. But Joseph is beat up, and I don't know where the altar is," she told the Clarion Herald, newspaper of the New Orleans Archdiocese. "There is a picture of Jesus hanging on the frame. I don't know if someone put it there."
There was also a note asking anyone to call a certain number if Father Ginart's chalice is found.
"We all told Father Red to leave, but you couldn't fuss at him," Harvey said. "That big Irishman did what he wanted to do."
Indeed, Father Ginart did things his way.
"His life was like rewriting the diary of a country priest," noted Msgr. L. Earl Gauthreaux, dean of the New Orleans East Deanery and pastor of St. Maria Goretti Church, which also suffered the fury of Katrina.
"He loved the elements surrounding him -- his parishioners, the fishermen, the alligators. He loved his simple existence and the people loved him. He had no secretary, no assistant, no cook. Any help he received was from volunteers," Msgr. Gauthreaux added.
Michael Ginart concurred that his uncle was a man of strong will. He also noted that he was "regimented."
"He had a routine he didn't like to break," Michael Ginart said. "He'd get aggravated if a holiday fell on a Monday because the bank would be closed.
"He also celebrated quick Masses -- about 25 minutes and it was over. I think that had something to do with his popularity among the parishioners," the nephew added. "He felt if his sermon lasted more than five minutes, no one would be listening anymore. And if Masses were short, he would have more time to stand outside the church and talk with everybody."
Many Lake Catherine residents have had a tradition of not evacuating during storms, even when local officials have recommended doing so. Rather, they coped stoically with both hurricanes and land erosion that over time increased their vulnerability to a tidal surge from Lake Pontchartrain.
"I talked to my uncle at about 4 a.m. on Monday (as Katrina was lapping at the Lake Catherine peninsula)," Michael Ginart said. "He said the water was coming up the church steps. He talked about the alligators and raccoons trying to find shelter."
That was his last conversation with "Father Red."