Heavy rains in Brazil leave hundreds dead or injured, half a million homeless, churches flooded

Our Lady of Medianeira Our Lady of Medianeira is among 31 flooded churches in the Archdiocese of Porto Alegre, Brazil. | Credit: Courtesy photo

The heavy rains that have pounded the Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul since the end of April have flooded 31 churches in the four vicariates of the Archdiocese of Porto Alegre.

“Due to the height of the water, we lost all the items for Mass, equipment, liturgical books, everything,” Father Fabiano Glaser, pastor of Our Lady Mediatrix Parish in the town of Eldorado do Sul, told ACI Digital, CNA’s Portuguese-language news partner.

The largest flood in the history of Rio Grande do Sul has already affected 450 of the state’s 497 municipalities, nearly 90% of its territory, according to the daily Civil Defense bulletin issued May 14 at 9 a.m. local time. So far there are 147 dead, 125 missing, 806 injured, and more than 538,000 homeless.

More than 76,000 people and 11,000 animals have been rescued. The level of the Guaíba River, which had dropped to 15.5 feet last Friday, May 10, rose again today to 17 feet. According to forecasts from the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul, the water could reach close to 18 feet throughout the day Tuesday.

Catholic churches flooded

Glaser said the parish is located in an urban area that was 100% affected by the heavy rains. The parish includes six churches and only one was not inundated by the waters because it is located in a “neighborhood called Eldorado Park that did not have flooding,” so it was able to accommodate some “homeless people.”

According to the priest, “people are very discouraged because it is the third flood in nine months” and “many people” have said they will leave the city. “Even parish leaders,” the priest added.

“So it’s going to be a long, hard job of rebuilding. I am trying to stay in touch with the parishioners by WhatsApp, by video, and I am trying to stay close [to them] with messages of perseverance,” the priest said.

Since the water invaded the rectory, Glaser said he is taking refuge in the Our Lady of Fátima Parish in Guaíba, a neighboring city. “I am in the rectory with a family of parishioners and there are around 140 people sheltering in the parish hall,” he said.

“Here in the parish I am saying Mass,” the priest said. “So every time there is Mass, I tell the people and those who are nearby to come and participate.”

A parish rescues 1,200 people

Immaculate Conception Parish, which has been in the Rio Branco neighborhood for 72 years, was “the first church devastated by the rains” in the town of Canoas, according to the parochial vicar, Father Rodrigo Barroso. “The water went through the pews and entered the sacristy and the parish office. We lost a lot of material goods,” Barroso told ACI Digital.

According to the priest, the parish “was the rescue point for about 1,200 people who began arriving at the church looking to be rescued” by boat.

Barasso reported that Immaculate Conception School, run by the Franciscan Sisters of Penance and Christian Charity, which is next to the church, “was also badly damaged.” The nuns had to close the church because some people were “looting places and the church was at great risk,” he said.

“With the force of the water, we couldn’t even close the doors of the church. Today I was there and we managed to close the parish,” he added.

The vicar said he doesn’t know how long it will take to “return to normal” in the neighborhood, so Masses are being celebrated in St. Louis Gonzaga Parish in midtown Canoas.

‘Worse than a hurricane’

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Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish in the Harmonia neighborhood of Canoas and its 13 communities were also under water.

“Everything was lost, nothing was saved,” the pastor, Friar Juan Miguel Gutiérrez Mendéz, told ACI Digital.

“All the houses” in the neighborhood “are under water” and this “is a very sad, very distressing, and very desperate reality,” he added.

A native of the Dominican Republic, the Capuchin friar said that the situation in Harmonia is “like a horror movie.”

“In my life, I have never experienced a situation like this; it’s the first time. In the Dominican Republic, which is a land where there are hurricanes every year, I had never experienced a situation like this,” the friar noted. “It’s a very difficult time we are going through.”

According to Gutiérrez, the flooding in Harmonia began on the night of Friday, May 3. “It was exasperating,” he continued. He and another friar managed to save more than 40 people.

“We went up to the third floor of the parish, to the catechism room, and we were able to stay there until almost Saturday night, when we were rescued by the firefighters,” he said.

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According to Gutiérrez, “the reality the faithful are experiencing is very sad,” because “many people are falling into depression, with enormous sadness.”

Faith and liturgy

“People are worried about the material things they have lost, but this is the time to encourage all members of the parish by telling them: We’ve lost everything, we have lost material things, but we have to ask God to increase our faith. With a strong, fortified faith, we can believe that better days will come, that we hope to rebuild, to start again,” the priest declared.

St. Pius X Parish in the Mathias Velho neighborhood of Canoas is also run by the Capuchin Friars Minor. According to Gutiérrez, the 10 friars who are there are in Porto Alegre parishes and three friars are still there in Canoas as volunteers because of the flood.

Two friars from Mathias Velho neighborhood who are at the La Salle School in Porto Alegre are celebrating Masses and broadcasting them on the internet. As for the faithful who are in the shelters, the friar reported that “they are being helped with food, but also in their spiritual life with Masses.”

According to the friar, “of the 350,000 people who live in Canoas, I think 150,000 were affected by the floods. There are many people, families who are in shelters.”

Gutiérrez highlighted something important to him: “the solidarity of the people. How many people have called me: ‘Friar, we are praying for you there in Canoas.’ How many people are contributing financially so that the people in the shelters can eat and be well,” he noted.

Gutiérrez also said that on May 12 he received news from a friar from the parish in the town of Amaral informing him that the leaders of this parish “are ready to go to Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish” and to the St. Pius X Parish in Mathias Velho.

“These people are going to go there when the water goes down to clean the chapels and then make an evaluation of what is missing in each chapel, so that later we can carry out a recovery campaign for all the communities,” he stated.

This story was first published by ACI Digital, CNA’s Portuguese-language news partner. It has been translated and adapted by ACI Prensa and CNA.

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