Monday, August 30, 2010

Remembering Hurricane Katrina

While some homes had been demolished in New Orleans' Lower 9th Ward,
nearly a year later others remained topsy-turvy by the force of the water.

Yesterday, August 29, marked the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina making landfall in New Orleans, La. It is an unforgettable natural disaster in the history of our country. Katrina’s fifth anniversary allowed me to reminisce about my last visit to the “Crescent City.” It was the year after Katrina. I made two trips to New Orleans that summer.

The first trip was with two of my former colleagues Erika Anderson and Priscilla Greear. The editors at The Georgia Bulletin allowed us to take a long field trip to the Gulf Coast to do some regional reporting on the area, one year after the Category 3 hurricane left a path of massive destruction from central Florida to Texas. Over five days in July, we travelled to Mississippi cities like Bay St. Louis, Long Beach, Pass Christian and Waveland. We spent our final three and half days in New Orleans.

There are a few things that still stand out about the trip. First, we were graciously assisted and welcomed by so many people during their time of loss. In Mississippi there was Shirley Henderson, editor of the Gulf Pine Catholic. Shirley and her husband allowed us to stay at their home. There was also a man by the name of Bragg Williams, a member of St. Rose Lima Church, who showed us around Bay St. Louis and Waveland. In New Orleans Peter Finney, editor of The Clarion Herald, and his staff went out of their way to help us in our efforts. Peter, an alumnus of Loyola University New Orleans, also made arrangements for us to stay in a dormitory on campus.

Secondly, I was so amazed by the amount of destruction Hurricane Katrina left behind. It was so overwhelming that one year later still looked like one week later. To see the news footage on television was one thing, but to actually see it in person was unbelievable. Whole neighborhoods for several square miles looked like ghost towns and electrical power in many areas had still not been restored. Shopping centers, stores, restaurants and many other commercial and residential buildings stood vacant. I’ll never forget the images.

Lastly, the people we met and wrote about in the two states were so full of faith. When you have nothing else to hold on to, God is there to support you, and they were not hesitant about reaching out to the Father.

I went back a second time for two days in mid August to capture some more images. I was so moved by the experience I took my 20-year-old daughter at the time. I felt someone else had to see what I had witnessed with their own eyes too. I pray that the people and the parish communities directly impacted by Hurricane Katrina are better off five years later than they were one year later. I also pray that some sense of normalcy and stability has returned to their lives.

Michael Alexander, Staff Photographer


To read the stories or view more photos in The Georgia Bulletin issue that was produced following those trips, click here.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

A competition cheerleading convert

Blessed Trinity defended its Region 6-AA title with a first place win during the Region Cheerleading Competition last November.

As I worked on my schedule of fall sports coverage last week, I had to include a sport that was not on my list in previous years. When The Georgia Bulletin began its sports reporting in the paper during the fall of 2007, I photographed and wrote about more traditional sports like cross country, football, softball and volleyball. If you went down my list, nowhere would you find a date on the schedule for competition cheerleading. I was cheating our readers because of my own prejudice against something I didn’t care to cover. Mind you, I had never witnessed competition cheerleading in my life. I saw it on the “four letter network” (ESPN), but I quickly turned the channel.

Isn’t that the way prejudice works? Until you allow yourself to get to know someone or expose yourself to something different, you are clouded by the bias in your own heart and mind.

Well, last October I received an email from a St. Pius X High School cheerleading parent. She noticed how I was giving attention to the other fall sports, but competition cheerleading was noticeably absent from my coverage. She invited me to the Georgia High School Association (GHSA) Northeast Georgia Region Cheerleading Competitions at Loganville High School. I decided to go. After seeing competition cheerleading in person I was convinced cheerleading is a sport worthy of coverage. From my experience I viewed competition cheerleading as a combination of Olympic style floor exercises, gymnastics and intricate tumbling skills.

Last month a U.S. District judge ruled that cheerleading is not an official sport and that Quinnipiac University, Hamden, Conn., could not replace its women’s volleyball team with a competitive cheering squad. In Judge Stefan Underhill’s words competitive cheerleading did not meet the criteria for a collegiate sport because “the activity is still too underdeveloped and disorganized….”

Not everyone agrees. Blessed Trinity High School competition cheerleading coaches Chris and Lauren Bordnick feel competitive cheerleading is a sport. “Competition cheerleading exists solely to compete and showcase various levels of physical endurance that comes from years of training in a professional setting with highly skilled coaches,” said the Bordnicks. The coaches pointed out that unlike sideline cheerleading, competition cheerleading requires harsh physical endurance, hours of physical training, weight lifting and gymnastics classes in order to compete at a high level of competition. At Blessed Trinity “only the best of the best, an elite 16,” are eligible to make the team. They must also maintain high academic standards and keep up their skill level in order to hold their spot on the squad. Like other team sports they stated that competition cheerleaders compete with other teams of equal talent for titles at the regional, state and national level. And like other team sports their goal is to train and win. “Our team will practice a minimum of 6 hours per week, which does not include tumbling classes, which may be an additional 3 hours per week, and they take weight training as one of their electives for at least one semester,” said the Bordnicks. That sounds like a sport to me.

St. Pius X cheerleaders perform during the Northeast Georgia Region Cheerleading Competition at Loganville High School Nov. 7, 2009.

St. Pius X High School competition cheerleading coach Kathryn Winland said they practice four to five days a week for a total of about 8-10 hours per week. “Our practices commonly involve a combination of stunting, tumbling and rehearsal of our routine,” said Winland. “We attend a choreography camp each summer and spend the remainder of the season refining the skills incorporated into the routine. In addition to cheer and dance, the routine includes advanced gymnastics/tumbling skills plus stunts that require a great degree of strength, flexibility and control.” While the skill level varies from team to team, many require advanced tumbling/gymnastics, such as a standing back tuck and a round-off back tuck. “At Pius we require a standing back handspring and strongly prefer a round-off back handspring at least,” said Winland. “In addition to tumbling, our routines include partner stunts and pyramids that require a great deal of strength, balance and coordination.” This year the St. Pius X routine also includes "one man" or "single base" stunts, in which one girl lifts another by herself. “Traditionally, this skill has been showcased more in co-ed squads with males lifting, but is becoming more and more common on all-girl squads and is a true testament to their strength and athleticism,” adds Winland.

The next time you question whether competition cheerleading is a sport, consider what these high school athletes go through to compete. Aren’t bass fishing, NASCAR and poker considered sports? Then I’m sorry, but competition cheerleading sounds like a sport to me.

Michael Alexander, Staff Photographer

Thursday, August 19, 2010

My time as a "Knight of the Altar'

Altar servers have recently been in the Catholic news when for the first time girl servers outnumbered the boys at a celebration at the Vatican.

That spurred some recollection of my own when I served as a ‘Knight of the Altar,’ as we were called.

My first thought was: how cool a ministry name is that? Nothing namby pampy about seeing yourself as a knight for a grade school kid.

In truth, a highlight of my service is a story that makes me chuckle.

I’ll set the stage. It would have been early 1980s. I was either in third or fourth grade. Our church – St. Sebastian Church, in Frankfurt, Germany –hosted Cardinal Terrence Cooke, archbishop of New York. He was touring Catholic facilities used by U.S. military families as part of his duties as military vicar.

Time has erased most of my memory of the visit, except when he celebrated Mass.

The small sanctuary was naturally jammed with priests. A cardinal coming through was not a usual occurrence. The one familiar face in the crowd was 'Father Joe,' who was either the pastor or a parochial vicar of our parish.

Somehow during the liturgy of the Eucharist, I was assigned the all-important task to ring the bells during the consecration. At the appointed time, I swear the one face I recognized – Fr. Joe – smiled at me and I took it as the signal to ring those bells. I rang them so hard that it was like a heavenly court of angels were present. You’d have been hard pressed to find an altar server ringing bells with more zeal.

Pause. A few moments later, again, ringing those bells like never before.

Later I realized I rung the bells at the wrong time! I used the hand bell during the Eucharistic Prayer leading to the consecration of the bread and wine. During the proper bell ringing moment – when the cardinal would have held up the body and blood of Christ - silence. Not a chime escaped from the bells.

I can only imagine what the cardinal was thinking. A “prince of the church” and he couldn’t have an altar boy who knew when to ring the bells correctly.

You may be thinking that surely brought my service to an end. But you’d be wrong. I continued to serve at the altar for years after. As I followed my brother in this service to the church, I was followed by my younger sister who fainted while serving Midnight Mass. But that’s her story to tell.

--Andrew, Staff Writer

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Vacation reflections

St. Vitla Church in Czesky Krumlov, Czech Republic

The wooden kneeler bit into my knees.

Here I was worshiping during a recent vacation to the Czech Republic. My Czech started and ended with ‘dobry den’ (good day) and ‘prosim’ (a catchall phrase for thank you and please.) So at Mass, I knew only when to say amen and to give the sign of peace.

The experience left me with unanswered questions mixed with an admiration for these people of faith.

Outside the Church of Our Lady Victorious in Malá Strana, Prague, home to the famous Infant Jesus of Prague, the 18-year-old tour guide standing on his Segway said the church is a draw for Spanish and Mexican tourists but rarely visited by locals. He said 80 percent of Czechs identify as atheists, a leftover of the 40 plus years of authoritarian rule. (Wikipedia puts the number between 30 percent and 60 percent, but still one of the highest in Europe.)

Earlier on my visit, I shared a lunch with three Czechs, two men, one woman, whose ages ranged from 20-something to nearing retirement. They talked a little about life under the Communist regime and life since the 1989 Velvet Revolution: police screenings before job opportunities; how parents wrestled with whether to join the Communist Party because that ensured a coveted university seat for their children; and how this 20-something uses Facebook as part of her job.

Fast forward a few days. I pulled on a wrinkled Oxford shirt for the 9:30 a.m. Mass at St. Vitla Church in Czesky Krumlov, a medieval town recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

I walked into the 15th century Gothic church as ladies sitting around the pews prayed the rosary. I didn’t know the words but I recognized the rhythm of the prayer as they fingered their beads.

Seats filled as Mass time approached to my surprise. I had expected a small crowd, keeping in mind what the tour guide had said. But slowly the space filled with a few tourists, families, the occasional teen and children resting in strollers cooed over by adults.

The lunch conversation came back to me as I looked around. What was it like back in the 1970 and 1980s? How did people claim their faith during those times? Did they put their livelihoods at risk by entering a church?

I left Mass with these unanswered questions and sorry I couldn't speak with the priest. Something tells me the church and the faith of the Catholic community, which was targeted for repression by government agents, was held together by grandmothers like these during those dreary decades. They held on to a fragment of faith, despite the oppression.

--Andrew, Staff Reporter

The photo was not taken by me. It is copied from the photo-sharing site, Flickr.
Photo credit: Magro_kr,

Friday, August 13, 2010

There's an app for that!

In a world of instant communication and social networking, it is increasingly hard for us (or me, anyway) to find time for prayer and reflection. With so much "noise" going on around us, we need to make an effort to draw our spirituality into our daily life. So whether you are waiting in the doctor's office or for your car to get an oil change, there's a Catholic app for that!

Catholics are now in the game and developers have been releasing various apps for iPhones and the like to meet Catholics where they are and aid them in their daily pursuit of prayer. From your iPhone you can now pray the rosary, read the daily Scriptures or pray the Divine Office. There are also seasonal apps for Catholics so they may pray the Stations of the Cross or follow the Liturgical calendar.

A quick Google search and one will find a growing list of apps for Catholics and Christians and it is just another way we can blend our technology with our faith to make our daily spiritual experience richer.

So the next time you find yourself waiting, maybe instead of opening up a new game of solitaire or backgammon, check our your provider's app store to see what your other options are. Because don't forget, there's an app for that!

Stephen, Staff Reporter

Monday, August 9, 2010

One of the perks

Health insurance, "inside access" vegetables?

It wasn't until recently I could add that last one to the list of perks I receive as a reporter for The Georgia Bulletin.

In last week's issue of the paper, we ran an article about the organic garden that was recently started at Marist School in Atlanta. I traveled to the school for an interview with Mike Burns, an English teacher and one of the moderators of the garden. After discussing the history of the project and showing us around that peaceful and serene setting, Mike offered to cut some fresh vegetables for me to take home. I gladly obliged.

Photo courtesy of the Marist School Garden Facebook page. See below for link.

That weekend I enjoyed fresh-steamed okra from the garden with a sautéed chicken breast and a salad topped with sliced cucumber and tomatoes, also from the garden. It was refreshing to have such noticeably fresh food! Quite an amazing sight to see the variety of vegetables, spices and flowers they have growing at Marist, and I can't wait to find out what they have planned next.

I sure hope we follow up with this story again soon!

Stephen, Staff Reporter


To read The Georgia Bulletin story, please click here. To keep up with the latest news and updates, visit the garden's Facebook page here.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Sent to the principal’s office--UPDATED


Here are the links to the stories Michael writes about:

Lauren Schell, the new principal at Holy Redeemer School.

Charles Martin, the new principal at St. Joseph School, Athens.

Pamela Moors, the new principal at St. Peter Claver Regional Catholic School.


I had to go to the principal’s office three times this week, but I managed to escape detention and a call to my parents.

Fortunately my visit was one of a different nature. The 24 archdiocesan and independent Catholic schools are gearing up for the 2010-2011 school year and three of the schools (Holy Redeemer, Johns Creek; St. Joseph, Athens; and St. Peter Claver, Decatur) have new principals.

I went out to their respective schools so I could photograph them for The Georgia Bulletin. Andrew Nelson is providing a profile on each of the principals, which will appear in the paper’s August 5 issue, but here’s a little trivia I found out about the newbies.

Holy Redeemer’s Lauren Schell is also the mother of two Catholic high school students. Her son is a senior and her daughter is a junior at Blessed Trinity High School, Roswell. Schell was born and raised in Queens, N.Y., and she’s “an avid New York Mets fan.”

St. Joseph’s Charles Martin stands at six feet, five inches tall. Martin is from the southwestern Ohio city of Middletown. He attended college at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, and now he is the principal at a Catholic school in Athens, Ga. God’s sense of humor does not stop there. Martin arrives at St. Joseph School, after teaching the last four years at St. Joseph School in Nashville, Tenn. Martin is a fan of the Cincinnati Reds and the Cincinnati Bengals. He believes the Bengals were starting to turn the corner and he hopes the acquisition of T.O. (wide receiver Terrell Owens) works out and it doesn’t have negative repercussions on the team.

St. Peter Claver’s Pamela Moors is a Mobile, Ala. native and she’s returning to the South after stints in Sacramento, Calif., and the U. S. Virgin Islands. This Los Angeles Lakers fan also likes tennis in addition to basketball. In her spare time Moors like to travel, do word puzzles, and play Scrabble.

At 28-years-of-age Martin distinguishes himself as the youngest principal among all the schools and Moors is the only African-American woman to head up one of our Catholic schools.

It sounds like a law firm, but welcome Martin, Moors and Schell. Here’s hoping you and the other 21 principals, staffs and students have a great school year.

Michael Alexander, Staff Photographer