The Rev. William Finch was watching television coverage of Hurricane Katrina when a woman who lost her home appeared on the screen. Her three sons were thirsty and hungry, she said, and they really wanted ice cream.
"I saw that and I decided: I'm the ice cream man," Finch told his parishioners during Sunday night Mass at St. Raphael's Catholic Church in Rockville.
Finch repeated the New Orleans woman's story at each of the seven Masses he celebrated over the Labor Day weekend. He asked the 3,300 families in his congregation to help finance a trip to Houston to pick up 50 hurricane victims and bring them to Montgomery County to live for an undetermined period.
While special collections for hurricane victims yielded canned goods and donations of five- and ten-dollar bills at religious services across the Washington area, the parishioners at St. Raphael's have the means to do more. And they did.
Yesterday, Finch said that more than $100,000 had been donated, and 34 parishioners offered their homes in Rockville and Potomac as temporary shelters.
"I've got cash to give, homes and big hearts," said Finch, 51, who plans to fly to Houston today. "I really don't know what's going to happen. It's a matter of faith at this point."
He knows his first stop will be the Astrodome, temporary home to thousands of Katrina's victims. He has contacted the Red Cross and Texas officials to ask for help in identifying victims. Everything else will be figured out on the fly.
The church has hired a bus and two drivers to pick up Finch and the evacuees Thursday. They anticipate a 22-hour ride to Maryland, with a stop in Knoxville, Tenn., for a night's rest. Two of Finch's staff members plan to meet the bus in Knoxville with clothing and other supplies.
Finch said he has been surprised by the size and scope of the donations. After mentioning the idea to a few people Wednesday, he received an offer from a dentist to take care of hurricane victims' teeth for free. The president of the University of St. Thomas in Houston has agreed to let the Montgomery group stay on campus for a couple of nights. Several parishioners who work for the Bethesda-based Marriott Corp. persuaded their employer to give Finch 30 free rooms at a Fairfield Inn in Knoxville.
Other parishioners gave personal checks for hundreds, even thousands, of dollars.
On Friday, Michael Petrillo, a Rockville resident, called Finch to see if he was planning to play golf over the weekend. Finch told him he was preparing to go to Houston. Petrillo and his sister, Michele Petrillo, both bankers, already had been planning to donate money to the Red Cross. Instead, they decided to give it to Finch.
"He's making a direct effort," Michael Petrillo said. "It doesn't go through any bureaucracy whatsoever."
The Petrillos agreed to pay the nearly $7,000 it will cost to charter the church's bus, and they gave Finch $25,000 as well. "It's just the right thing to do, because it's all we can do," Michael Petrillo said.
Finch told his congregation that once the hurricane victims come to Montgomery, he will help people enroll their children in public schools. He plans to hold regular potluck dinners. He even wants to give them cell phones with unlimited minutes so that they can call relatives.
"I believe that the Holy Spirit will help us as a parish to help them," Finch told members of his church.
Nancy Kaplan, corporate vice president of human resources for an Arlington technology company, said she felt goose bumps when she heard Finch talk about his plan during Mass on Sunday morning. So she volunteered her five-bedroom, three-bathroom house in Potomac as a shelter.
She said she has plenty of room now that her three children have moved to their own homes. "I think it would be nice to have them feel they have a place where they can go and have some comfort," she said. "It's not just a cot. They need more than that."