Slowly, bit by bit, the Gulf Coast is returning, just look at the crab festival

Published 2:06 pm Wednesday, July 5, 2006

The live oaks are bedraggled; I could find little Spanish moss on any of their branches, the resurrection fern appears to be mostly gone.

Underneath the remaining branches of the big, still beautiful but tattered trees a resurrection was taking place this past weekend, however.

Our Lady of the Gulf Catholic Church in Bay St. Louis was holding its annual crab festival.

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The amount of work that has gone into pulling off this magnificent celebration of crabs and seafood for the first 21 years of its existence had to have been monumental. This year, though, the crab festival’s 22nd, after Hurricane Katrina shattered the towns of Bay St. Louis and Waveland and the rest of the Mississippi Gulf Coast late last August, shattered Our Lady of the Gulf and its two associated schools, the beautiful grounds on which this event occurs, the effort to put on this year’s crab festival must have been phenomenal.

The parishioners only recently moved back into the church. Yes, Father Michael Tracey is now holding mass again inside the beautiful church. The front double doors are plywood still, but the wooden floors are back. There are pews down the middle, though folding chairs hold parishioners who prefer to sit on the sides. Sunlight again gleams through the stained-glass windows.

Much of the damage is still obvious. One parishioner I spoke to at the festival said that if the church hadn’t had the brick work repointed shortly before the storm, the damage could have been much greater. He mentioned the possibility that the church itself may have been lost.

Yet, the parishioners, seeking a sense of normalcy for themselves and for the Gulf Coast, managed to pull together in the depths of their travail, and as they repaired their beautiful church, they planned for their annual event that has become such a major part of Gulf Coast tradition in Hancock County.

From what Genie and I saw, I think their efforts have been well rewarded. I couldn’t see even the slightest dip in the size of the crowd the two days we were there.

I bought my usual book of tickets on a shrimp or mullet net, and, as usual, I am in no danger of having to learn how to throw one correctly. For 16 years I have bought a book of tickets and for 16 years someone else has won.

Doesn’t matter, never has, I just enjoy sitting down and talking to people at the festival. Strangely for the first time ever, Genie and I talked about how nice everyone was that we sat down next to and across from.

That’s strange because everyone has always been nice, lots of fun to chat with. This is just the first year we have ever talked about it very much, and I really don’t know why. I guess we are just greatly relieved that the really important part of the festival, the people, haven’t changed.

We talked with people from St. Bernard Parish, La., the state of Indiana — they didn’t say where in Indiana and we didn’t ask, though Genie did mention to them she had gone to college at St. Mary of the Woods in Terre Haute.

There were folks there from Florida, Alabama, all over. Naturally, there were lots of folks from Bay St. Louis and Waveland and elsewhere on the coast and we all just had great conversations as we ate crabs, shrimp, crab claws, all that wonderful food that comes from the Gulf of Mexico. We all looked reflectively at the nearly barren limbs of the oaks that towered over us.

The great thing about the trees was that they had lots of leaves and other new growth. They have survived so far. Hurricane Katrina was not their first storm, though certainly it was their worst.

Just as the parishioners faithfully attend their church every Sunday, just as the crab festival returned from what could have been its death knell, certainly the trees will recover their former glory, grow to even greater glory and shade future generations of crab festival goers.

I certainly hope so. One of the great things about living in Picayune is its closeness to so many other wonderful places. The Mississippi Gulf Coast and Our Lady of the Gulf’s Crab Festival is just one of many.

I still recall well the first crab festival we attended in 1990 and the graciousness of a woman that sat across from us. We bought some crabs and carried them to a table to crack and pick. Naturally, just like nearly everyone else, we were working with our bare hands and I was trying to crack the legs and claws by beating them with my pocket knife.

The woman across from us had come prepared. She had a pair of pliers, some picks and some these wipes that come encased in foil to cleanup with afterwards. She shared it all with us and others around her.

Since then, we have come as well prepared and we also share with others. That’s just the way it is at the crab festival, here in Picayune and at so many other places we find ourselves so close to by living here.