Cardinal Blase J. Cupich

Puerto Rico rising

Wednesday, November 3, 2021

On Sept. 7, 2017, Hurricane Irma, the first Category 5 hurricane on record to hit Puerto Rico, brought widespread destruction to the island. Just two weeks later, another one hit, when Hurricane Maria brought even more devastation to Puerto Rico.

Less than three years later, the U.S. territory was struck by a 6.4 magnitude earthquake. And on top of all of that, Puerto Ricans have had to face the pandemic. Our fellow Americans have suffered a great deal there, as has the Catholic Church.

During the last week of October, I went to Puerto Rico for the second time, after having been sent there by Pope Francis in December 2017. The Holy Father asked me to offer the Puerto Rican people and church leaders his support and encouragement and to keep him apprised of the situation.

Sadly, much of the ruin left by these natural disasters remains. While a good deal of the major infrastructure, such as public utilities and roads, have been repaired, many homes, businesses and church facilities, including schools, still need to be rebuilt.

Yet I saw a resiliency among the people as I visited all six dioceses and their bishops. Four years after those hurricanes hit, the Catholic Church continues to provide Puerto Rican communities with access to critical services and to address ongoing public health and safety, educational and spiritual needs across the island.

A key partner in the recovery is Catholic Extension. It has committed the necessary resources to manage an estimated $300 million portfolio of damaged facilities, totaling nearly 900, all the while following the rules and regulations that accompany the use of funds from Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Without doubt government agencies have many demands made on them. They are staffed by dedicated people who want to help their fellow citizens. While visiting with FEMA, representatives of the governor’s office and other agencies, we asked that recovery funding for churches and schools now move up the priority line.

For instance, FEMA has obligated over $2.3 billion in funding for permanent repairs of public schools in Puerto Rico. Yet, in the past four years, Catholic schools, which support some of the most impoverished and isolated communities on the island, have not received a single dollar of federal funding for permanent repairs of such schools.

During my recent visit to Puerto Rico, FEMA and the Puerto Rican agencies leading the recovery have committed to supporting church efforts to access the necessary funds to rebuild. The good public servants we visited with acknowledge that, while progress has been made on many recovery needs, more must be done to ensure the church is able to respond to the island’s needs now and following future disasters.

There is urgency to move ahead quickly because 28 schools and 36 churches or church facilities have a deadline of Dec. 31, 2021, to complete the applications for FEMA to issue obligations, which would amount to about half of the estimated damages. (The remaining 821 Catholic churches and church facilities need to complete the application work by March 31, 2022.)

Catholic Extension is committed to walking with the church in Puerto Rico and has boldly stepped forward to help the bishops on the island navigate the complex process of applying for recovery funding.

The work of this Chicago-based papal society makes us all proud. Their team, under the leadership of Father Jack Wall, one of our own archdiocesan priests, has given hope to the Catholic community in Puerto Rico. We look forward to the day when the recovery is complete.


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