LAKE CATHERINE, La. – The night sky heaved like a living thing as Fire Chief Joe Perez took another slow cruise in his rescue truck down the two-lane road snaking across this town in the last patch of marsh standing between New Orleans and an angry Gulf of Mexico.

It was his final check before he, too, holed up in a safe haven just ahead of Hurricane Katrina.

Perez drove to St. Nicholas of Myra Church. Sure enough, the Rev. Arthur Ginart was still at his simple steel-frame and brick veneer church.

Katrina had developed into a Category 5 monster that nearly filled the Gulf on satellite images, and the storm was due to make landfall within 12 hours. It was clear, though, that the 64-year-old priest was digging in, not leaving.

“You know I may not be able to come back,” Perez said. “This is crazy. You’ve got to go. There’s no telling what this storm’s going to do.”

“No, cher, I’m staying,” Ginart said. “If it’s God’s will, I’ll get washed away. If it’s God’s will, I’ll go down with the church.”

AMONG THE MISSING

It has been five years since Katrina swept across Lake Catherine, and “Father Red” remains among the missing.

The precise death toll from the August 2005 storm remains elusive. The confirmed toll stands at just over 1,800. In Louisiana, 135 are, like Ginart, still officially categorized as missing.

The story of the dead is told, in part, on Canal Street, where a mausoleum honors the remains of 80 Katrina victims.

Half of them are people who were identified but whose families either couldn’t be found or didn’t want to claim them; the other half remain unknown.

“New Orleans has been a city for decades where people try to get lost in for various reasons,” says Orleans Parish Coroner Frank Minyard.

Father Red was not one of those trying to lose himself. If anything, he saw his job as finding the lost.

NOT A BORN SAINT

Sitting on a land bridge between the Mississippi River and the Gulf Coast, the tiny town of Lake Catherine had learned to make peace with the water. The original town was wiped out during a 1915 hurricane. Thirty-five people died, but the town was rebuilt and became home to hunting and fishing clubs.

When Arthur Ginart arrived in town in 1976, the church of St. Nicholas of Myra — the patron saint of sailors and travelers, as well as the model for Santa Claus — was just five years old.

Lake Catherine lies within the New Orleans city limits. But with its fishermen and alligator hunters eating armadillo stew and sucking down beers at Crazy Al’s bar on Sunday mornings, it’s a world away.

Patrons still chuckle at the memory of Father Red storming in one Sunday while a pornographic film was playing on the TV over the bar. “Just turn it off during Mass,” the clergyman pleaded. The bar complied.

Ginart wasn’t exactly born a saint himself. Raised in New Orleans’ blue-collar Bywater district, Ginart boasted he once took a train for a joyride when he was a boy. He smoked and cursed and flirted with alcoholism.

Perhaps that explained his easy way with the fishermen, trappers and factory workers who made up his flock. He looked his parishioners right in the eye, and kept things short and simple — especially his sermons.

“If I can’t say what I want to say in five minutes, it’s not worth it,” he once said. “People stop listening after four minutes.”

And everybody remembered Father Red — whose eyebrows were really the only things still “red” about him besides his ruddy complexion — as a die-hard for “dem New Orleans Saints.”

THIS ONE WAS DIFFERENT

The evening of Saturday, Aug. 27, 2005, Ginart stood at the church’s front door greeting his parishioners.

Water was already creeping in over the backyard of the church, just as it had nearly three weeks earlier when Hurricane Cindy came through. The church grounds got soggy just about every high tide, but everyone knew this was different.

The first of Katrina’s wind bands loomed on the horizon. The hurricane was heading straight toward Lake Catherine, outside the levee system that protected most of New Orleans proper.

As usual, Father Red’s sermon was brief and comforting. He spoke of the approaching storm, blessed the 125 or so worshippers and wished them the best. Then he headed for the modest 1950s-era mobile home adjoining the church where he received parishioners, slept and listened to his old-school jukebox.

And Katrina, with roaring winds and surging seas, barreled across the Gulf toward Louisiana.

At first, Michael Ginart didn’t know whether his uncle and godfather had stayed behind for the storm. As he arrived in Lake Catherine that Friday after Katrina and saw the wreckage, he could only hope.

When he and two friends reached St. Nicholas, it looked as if a bomb had gone off inside. Walls and doors were blown out. Father Red’s trailer was gone.

When Ginart spotted the little orange-red Dodge Neon resting in the marsh, he knew his uncle hadn’t left. He loved that car and never would have left it behind.

HONORING HIS MEMORY

No one in the close-knit community believed the priest could have made it. But his nephew couldn’t just accept that the marsh had taken him.

Ginart, a lawyer, called the Archdiocese of New Orleans and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. By June 2006, a forensic pathologist had been hired to spend days scouring the marshes, cypress stands, ponds and bayous near the church.

He found a few personal effects — a couple of photos, a lighter Father Red had saved from his smoking days, one of the priest’s numerous jumpsuits. In the grass, a searcher found one of Father Red’s favorite coffee cups, which had sat behind the priest’s desk in the trailer. Corpse-sniffing dogs uncovered more personal items, but no bones.

Since the storm, friends of Father Red haven’t waited to accept that he is gone — or to honor his memory.

He was a volunteer firefighter in Terrytown and Fort Pike, a station up the road from St. Nicholas, and was trained as an emergency medical technician. He served as the auxiliary chaplain for the New Orleans Fire Department, and it was common for fire departments to ask him to bless trucks, firefighters and stations.

About a month ago, Lake Catherine completed its rebuilt firehouse, and it was dedicated to Father Red.

On Aug. 21, hundreds of people and New Orleans Archbishop Gregory Aymond gathered at a New Orleans church for a somber memorial service in the priest’s honor. His portrait was blessed with holy water and hung on the wall inside the new suburban church in New Orleans’ Katrina-scarred eastern district, where his old flock now prays.

St. Nicholas remains closed. Sitting amid the thrushes and cracking mud flats, the empty shell is slowly succumbing to the natural forces set in motion by the storm.

The grassy slope where Father Red’s trailer once stood is strewn with debris. Inside the dark church, someone has arranged items — a miniature plastic Christmas tree with presents, a camel from a Nativity scene, a votive candle — on the floor as if waiting for the priest’s return.

When the archdiocese announced plans around 2000 to close St. Nicholas as part of a restructuring, 250 people turned out to prove to the visiting archbishop that this was an active parish. The church hierarchy backed down, but the priest told his nephew to “keep a room for me” just in case. If the church were to close his parish, he said, he’d leave the priesthood.

There is talk of opening the church up someday as a camp for children. “Father Red would have liked that,” his nephew says.

After Katrina, his flock was at a loss for what to do without their shepherd. His absence is still keenly felt.

Alice Major went to St. Nicholas every day to pray. If the septuagenarian wasn’t on her knees, she was in the kitchen baking Easter pastries or helping the Altar Society with Christmas dinner.

In the months after the storm, a Mass at a suburban and sterile church in eastern New Orleans only left her depressed. When she got home, she wept.

“I cry because I miss him,” says Major, who keeps two crucifixes Father Red blessed for her close to her heart. “I miss our church. There will never be another Father Red.”