Ninth in a series chronicling the Larches of New Orleans as they rebuild their lives in the Washington area

Afew hours before he's supposed to meet Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, archbishop of Washington, Todd Larche has popped open a beer and is finishing off a cigarette.

The Larche family and fellow evacuee from Hurricane Katrina Charles Travis have been invited to a reception for the Catholic Charities Foundation -- Catholic Charities donated food, clothing and Target cards to the Larches -- and Todd can't decide if he should give the cardinal the cleaned-up ceramic crucifix he rescued from his moldy bedroom wall in New Orleans last week.

Maybe that would be corny.

"I'm going to ask him to bless this cross," he says, pulling from his shirt the large gold crucifix and chain also retrieved from his house. He wants to give it to his unborn baby, Todd Jr., due any day. He wants to tell him it was blessed by a great man. "And I don't want to ask him to do something without giving him something in return," Todd frets.

He smokes some more, then goes to look for a piece of candy. Hard to know what to do.

"Man, I wanted to go on the Internet and do a little research on this cat, you see what I'm saying?" he says. "But I can't even focus right now."

Because a Catholic can go his whole life without ever meeting a cardinal, and Todd, 38, can't quite get his mind around the idea. Because he's leaned on faith when nothing else was holding him up. Because even though "I'm far from a perfect Catholic or a perfect man," Todd says. "I guess I'm old-fashioned in that some things still matter."

Todd and all four of his brothers and sisters went to Corpus Christi Catholic School. So did his daddy and his mama. So did his wife, Michele, who Todd fell in love with in kindergarten along with all the other 5-year-old boys. So did Michele's mother, Mere Mere, and Mere Mere's mother, who sewed clothes for the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament.

The rituals of his faith have always been part of his life, his culture, his New Orleans. "That's how I remember waking up in the morning, with my daddy smoking cigarettes and saying his prayers."

When his mother killed herself, and his older brother, who promised he'd always be there, died in a motorcycle accident 14 months later, it was Brother Lewis, who taught classes at Corpus Christi, who kept a most watchful eye on Todd. Took him for pizza, rides on Lake Notre Dame and to the seminary on Thursdays to go swimming. He was firm and constant and kept Todd from going wild in his grief.

Later, after he got out of the Navy, he questioned his faith. Questioned the role of Catholicism in the slave trade and the slaughter of indigenous people. He learned of church complicity during the Holocaust in World War II. He started hanging out with friends in college and listening to gangsta rap and didn't know how his consciousness and his Catholicism fit. In 1993, he reconnected with his faith. He started dating Michele and wanted to be a better man. He asks for forgiveness, he says, so he must be willing to forgive the sins of the church he loves.

Three times a day he says nine Hail Marys, three Acts of Contrition and three Our Fathers. He says a prayer to Saint Gerard, the patron saint of expectant mothers, for Michele, and he's been saying the Psalm 102 since he began teaching nine years ago.

His prayers have remained largely the same since the hurricane. "I'm praying for what matters. Sometimes you pray for too much so I'm just praying for those in more need." He prays for the homeless and alone, and especially for President Bush. "I trust he's a Christian, he's not a Catholic but he's a Christian. He believes in God. He's an American. You've got to pray for your leader at a time like this and he's our leader. God bless him."

With everything he's been through, you wonder if the hurricane hasn't tested his beliefs. Todd says no. "My faith can't be tried," he says. "I know there's a God. I know it driving from Silver Spring to New Orleans and seeing all God's majesty." He knows it from the grace shed on his life.

Marrying "my wife who I always thought was out of my league. Meme is sitting here and I know I have her love. My daddy is here and he's coherent and I get to look after him. That beautiful daughter in there. All my life is a miracle," he says. "Here, I've been in D.C. a little over a month and I'm going tonight to meet this great man."

At the Catholic Charities Foundation reception, Todd hugs McCarrick tight. "This came from the ashes of my home and I want to give it to you," he says handing him the ceramic crucifix. He'll cherish it, the cardinal says. He blesses Todd's gold crucifix and prays for Todd's unborn child. He meets Mere Mere, 81, who has Alzheimer's and doesn't know who he is and kneels low to talk to Todd's 5-year-old daughter, Kristen.

"I'll be praying for your family," the cardinal says. Todd kisses his ring.

"I'm a proud Catholic, a very proud Catholic," Todd says beaming. Then he grabs a beer and says a prayer of thanks.

Todd Larche, his mother-in-law and daughter Kristen meet Cardinal Theodore McCarrick at a Catholic Charities reception.Larche kisses the ring of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, archbishop of Washington, as the reception ends. Larche with his father, John Larche, center, and Auxiliary Bishop of Washington Martin D. Holley at the reception. Todd Larche, his 5-year-old daughter Kristen and his mother-in-law, Mere Mere, at the Catholic Charities reception.