UTUADO, PUERTO RICO — Our Lady of Monte Carmelo Catholic Church tried to hold Mass right after Hurricane Maria passed, but a landslide had knocked out the east wall and filled the tiny sanctuary with thick mud.
The lakeside village of Caonillas had been savaged. The hillsides appeared to bleed, scarred by the streaks of dislodged earth and frond-less palm trees. Maria’s winds spirited away zinc and tin roofs. Her deluge sent blood-orange topsoil into homes, onto cars and across roads.
“It was hellish,” said Midge Battistini, a teacher who lost her home near the banks of Lake Caonillas. She said the winds changed direction, creating a funnel effect that sucked up every green thing around.
Tucked into the sparsely populated central mountainsides, the village had been cut off from the rest of the world. No services. No contact. The people of Caonillas had weathered storms before. Hurricane Hugo had been through here. So had Georges. But Maria showed no mercy. There was nothing holy about her.
Carmen Ortiz and her family live nearest to Our Lady of Monte Carmelo, and they worked for a week to dig it out from the mud and clean the pews. On the first Mass after the Sept. 20 storm, the church opened and the Ortiz family — the four of them — were the only ones who could make it. Ortiz sought solace in Father Rafael Rodriguez, sharing her worries, her fears and what her family experienced trapped inside their home as Maria lashed outside.
The church “is the only light I’ve seen in the midst of all this darkness,” she said.
At that first Mass, they prayed that more people would come.
More than two weeks after Hurricane Maria tore a devastating path through Puerto Rico, communities such as this one are still isolated and struggling to meet basic human needs. They are frustrated at what they see as the lack of local and federal attention to their plight. In Caonillas, the effort to re-energize the church has given people a special kind of faith — a special kind of mission — while the world around them remains unsettled and unnerving.
Local officials estimate that nearly every state road in Coanillas and greater Utuado was impassable or collapsed after the hurricane. No homes were left completely untouched in this region of the central mountain range once ruled by the indigenous caciques, or Taino chiefs, who dominated the high-altitude interior until the 15th century, when Christopher Columbus arrived.
“There were roads I didn’t recognize and homes that I was used to seeing that were gone,” said Idhem Heredia, the parish secretary. “There were other homes that I hadn’t seen before because there was so much vegetation. Now they are clear to see.”
Heredia said the region simply wasn’t prepared for what Maria wrought.
When it became obvious that help wasn’t quickly on its way, local residents began fending for themselves as they assessed the ruin around them.
Hector Quiles got busy, using a bulldozer to clear the mud and dead trees from mountain roadways. The coffee grower said Maria wiped out his entire harvest.
Quiles, 40, had coffee, plantains and fruits and vegetables, but he estimated that “about 5 percent is left over, and that is for my family’s consumption.”
Another grower, Angel Gonzalez, vice president of Cafe Don Alonso, had similar laments: “There’s no coffee to process.”
As shock turned to despair, parishioners focused on Our Lady of Monte Carmelo. Roads began to clear and the church started to return to some semblance of its former self. Ortiz’s extended family arrived for a midweek mass, increasing the number of worshipers from four to eight.
Still, they believed, more would come. The parish posted a yellow sign on the front gate: “There will be Mass on Sunday at 11 a.m.”
That Sunday was Oct. 1 — 11 days after Maria made landfall — and the parishioners began setting up. Plastic chairs were placed at the rear of the church instead of at the altar, away from where the mud had invaded the room. The sound of a tambourine and a guitar strumming emanated from the darkened interior, where Ortiz and her daughter were practicing choruses for the service. A painting of La Virgen de la Divina Providencia, the patroness of Puerto Rico, watched over the elements for the Eucharist with the island’s flag — red and white stripes with a blue triangle emblazoned with a white star — draped behind her.
Then the people started arriving.
Jose Maldonado Jimenez, 71, sat outside waiting for the service with about a dozen others; they milled about and shared their stories and traded hugs and kisses. Children chased after a skinny black mutt in the church courtyard, and men with sun-kissed faces wanted to know what President Trump had said about the Puerto Rican recovery that had people so upset down in the town at the base of the mountain.
“This has been out of this world. No one has come around here” with food and water, Maldonado Jimenez said. “Here in the country, we can eat from the earth and we can draw water from the mountain for a while. We can live without electricity, but we planned for seven days, not two weeks. But we will figure out a way.”
The parish bell began to toll, signaling to the homes on the mountainside and the valley below that Mass would soon commence.
Father Rodriguez put on his robes in a back room next to Quile’s eldest son, who struggled to find the slot for his head in his altar boy cassock. The doors all were open.
The bell rang again, and 20 people took their seats. It was steamy, uncomfortable. Whispered conversations broke into chuckles when one man clicked the switch of a fan. It didn’t spin. No power here, and not expected for a long time. He smiled goofily.
“We’ve all been affected. There is much suffering. There is much anguish,” the priest said as he began his homily. “What do we do? We look to our faith, to the cross of Jesus, and look around to see who needs help around us.”
This moment of suffering, he told his flock, can become a time of blessing.
About halfway through the homily, Ines Lopez Serrano, 37, arrived with her three children, striding quickly toward a pew toward the back edge of the congregation. She smiled painfully. As the service continued, Lopez’s face would tense up and she’d wince. Her young son noticed, and each time he saw her on the verge of tears, he wrapped his arms around her neck and pecked her cheek.
During the storm, Lopez’s husband made the last-minute decision to move the family to his mother-in-law’s house further down the mountain. But after nearly two weeks, the children were anxious to go back home.
Lopez didn’t want them to see it.
The mountainside had fallen on their green-and-yellow home of seven years. The mud forced its way through the front door like a burly bandit and took out the kitchen and the children’s bedrooms. Lopez said she resisted their pleas to see the house — she was worried what seeing the devastation might to do them — but to get to the church, they needed to pass it.
The children got a glimpse of what was lost, just enough to know that the house their parents had scraped and sacrificed to own could no longer be their home.
“There was another family whose house slid off the mountain completely, and they were inside at the time,” Lopez said. “They were able to escape, but they have it more difficult,”
It’s the typical response in these mountains. No matter how bad one has it, there is always someone worse off and in need of an “Ay bendito” — a common refrain of compassion here in Puerto Rico.
Father Rodriguez prepared for Communion to close the Mass. After the last person ate of the bread and drank of the wine, he invited everyone to pray. The congregation knelt together and closed their eyes.
The countryside is rarely silent these days, with generators buzzing in the distance and roosters crowing. But the church was soundless, still and stiff.
Then Lopez’s daughter, Nahir Ortiz, sniffled, whimpered and began to cry. Her deepening sobs triggered a flood of tears across the congregation.
The 14-year-old, wearing a Superman shirt, flew into the arms of those around her.
Within minutes, the crying stopped. In its place was laughter.