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National Guard troops, historic order of nuns form alliance in New Orleans

NEW ORLEANS—The 19th-century French convent in the toughest part of New Orleans has always been as sturdy and secure as a fortress. So it isn't a stretch for the Ninth Ward's Holy Angels Convent to double as a barracks, where soldiers and sisters live side-by-side while they aid in New Orleans' hurricane recovery.

A National Guard unit took over the convent in the days after Hurricane Katrina, when the nuns had fled and the soldiers needed a place to stay. It was the second time the convent had been occupied by soldiers; the first was during the Civil War.

"We never thought in our wildest dreams we'd ever live in a convent," said Maj. Russell Heaton of Walla Walla, Wash., who heads the unit of 150 Washington state National Guard soldiers based at Holy Angels. "But it's not bad. Our ethics, our structures are fairly similar."

The Washington unit, which is expected to leave the convent at the end of October, is the third one there since the hurricane.

The arrangement takes some getting used to, on both sides.

"They're not quite as gentle with our property as we are," said Sister Kay Kinberger, the congregational leader—Mother Superior—of the Marianites of the Holy Cross, a religious order comprising 265 nuns here and in France.

One night in the convent dining room, Kinberger prepared dinner for Heaton and two other ranking officers: homemade gumbo and fried chicken from Popeye's.

Combat boots pounded the wooden floors; a walkie-talkie on a sideboard buzzed with military chatter.

Dinner had already started when Heaton entered with a thunderous clack, the metallic signature of clearing the chamber on his M-16, which he laid on the floor alongside his helmet and body armor.

Fifty soldiers sleep on cots in a chapel, beneath a cypress cross. The rest are scattered throughout the convent, its offices and a neighboring home for elderly nuns.

Soldiers from Oregon occupied the convent without first asking the nuns' permission but tried to be respectful of the holy ground, which lies 10 blocks from the canal that breached its banks after Katrina, swamping the Ninth Ward.

The Washington soldiers, whose main mission is to patrol the district, spend their free time repairing the convent. They've stripped drywall and Sheetrock to halt the spread of mold and have rewired the convent. Because the Guard is there, the sisters are the only Ninth Ward residents with electricity.

The Washington Guardsmen have one of the toughest assignments in the city: They're in charge of security in the part of New Orleans that not only was hit hardest by flooding but was the poorest and most dangerous area in the city before the hurricane struck.

Before Katrina, the sisters heard gunfire and saw drug deals from their windows. They've chosen to stay here all these years to be a spiritual presence in the beleaguered district, calling themselves an "oasis in the Ninth Ward."

The sisters are educated: doctors, nurses and teachers, some of whom work at a Ninth Ward hospital and others who care for AIDS patients and do social work throughout the city.

The holy sisters and the Washington soldiers are growing on each other.

The soldiers have talked about getting T-shirts made, picturing the sisters in traditional habits—they wear civilian clothes nowadays—bearing Army accoutrements, under the slogan "nuns with guns."

"We're a nonviolent order," Kinberger tells them, in a warm Southern drawl. "Maybe we could get something a little more in line with our mission."

She's attached to the soldiers, too. For their first few weeks of duty, the unit was ordered to remain in the convent, even in its off hours. The nuns took pity on them, feeding them and bringing a 12-piece Dixieland jazz band to play.

As she prepared a Sunday dinner, Kinberger graciously tolerated the drone over the walkie-talkie.

"I love that military language," she said. "I'm going to use it with the sisters."

At the convent, the petite Kinberger, 60, outranks the unit commander. She joined the order 40 years ago. She's used to giving orders, and the soldiers do what she says.

She also gives them hugs and gumbo: the tokens of Southern love.

Spc. Milt Williams of Vashon Island, Wash., gets a kick out of her.

Early in the soldiers' mission, Kinberger drove through the convent's guarded front gate and parked in her usual spot. With armed soldiers on every corner, she got out and activated the car's anti-theft device.

"I said, `Ma'am, there are 34 soldiers out here with guns. Who do you think is going to rip off your ride?'" Williams said.

"I live in New Orleans. What can I tell you?" Kinberger said. "It's a habit."


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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