This palm tree was downed by Hurricane Irma and damaged the Blessed Sacrament Chapel of San Marco Parish on Marco Island. The parish church received roof and water damage but was spared the storm surge.

Churches damaged, spirit strong in Southwest Florida

Naples | In the aftermath of Hurricane Irma there are many people with stories of how they rode out the storm and turned to prayer for protection from the fierce winds.

In Naples, St. Elizabeth Seton Parish administrator Father Russell Ruggiero feels blessed to be alive after experiencing the ferocity of Irma firsthand by riding out the storm inside the parish church.
“I kept getting updates from my family about where the storm was and they told me to find a good place to hide when the eye comes.”

Father Ruggiero switched from the sacristy, which has a large window across from the door, to the women’s bathroom, which sits next to the utility closet and has no windows nearby. Then he waited.
“It wasn’t too loud as I prayed and wondered what was happening outside,” Father Ruggiero said as a wind gust of 142 mph was recorded a few miles away. “When the eye had passed, I decided to check out the damage.”

While again on the phone with his sister, he entered the narthex and saw that insulation and part of the ceiling had come down. “That was really worrying.”

A few steps later, he realized the interior of the church didn’t look right; the roof had a gaping hole in it, exposing the beams and causing toxic insulation to fall into the church like a crazy combination of a waterfall and pink snowstorm.

“I think I was in shock at first, then my heart broke,” Father Ruggiero said. “I know how much people rely on the church to find comfort and solace and then this damage took place. I am so thankful it wasn’t worse and feel blessed to alive. Now we have to rebuild.”

Since the storm, the priest has barely left the property, answering questions from parishioners who come by and offer help. He has worked closely with St. Elizabeth Seton Catholic School Principal Maria Niebuhr to assist the school in its recovery after damage was done to roofs and to classrooms where debris smashed windows and let water in.

“We have never failed one another as a faith community,” Father Ruggiero said of the people of St. Elizabeth Seton Parish. “All of these people came and asked, ‘Father, what can we do to help?’ That is the commitment of this parish. We are a family and we are strong.”

Bishop Frank J. Dewane concelebrated the first Mass following the storm Sept. 16. It was held in the parish center, where donated generators allowed fans and lights to operate. Bishop Dewane offered his prayers and encouragement to the parish community, and pledged that the damaged buildings will be repaired as soon as possible. The bishop also addressed the faithful at the Spanish-language Mass.

“You are the Holy Remnant, referred to in sacred Scripture,” the bishop said. “My prayers are with you as each of you struggle to recover from Hurricane Irma, having suffered in your own way. You as a parish community will rebuild, unified in Christ.”

Following the Mass, Knights of Columbus from the parish and from nearby St. Agnes Parish distributed hamburgers and hot dogs, as many remained without power with little hope to have the basic necessity for another week.

Claudia Francisco saw the reports on Hurricane Irma and knew that she would not be safe sheltering in her Fort Myers home with family.

The only place she could go was her parish church, Jesus the Worker. Along with more than 150 others, Francisco and her family gathered in the church with their pastor, Father Patrick O’Connor, Oblates of St. Francis de Sales, and other priests as they prayed as one.

“We prayed the rosary and sang,” Francisco said. “We knew we would be protected from the storm.”
Father O’Connor said the experience reflected the strength of the faith of the people of the parish. “It was really incredible to be there and to know that we provided comfort to so many.”

Sadly, Francisco’s worst fears became reality when she returned to find her home severely damaged and water in the house. “Without the church and prayer, we would not have survived. We can rebuild. We were blessed and so thankful we had a place to go.”

After the storm, the parish became a Catholic Charities Diocese of Venice disaster response distribution point for food and water. Hundreds of people helped unload trucks and helped in any way they could. The Knights of Columbus from St. Andrew Parish in Cape Coral brought additional supplies and then fed the faithful a hot meal the weekend after the storm.

“Many of the people here lost so much but they want to give back and do what they can,” Father O’Connor said. “Irma may have damaged homes, but she could do nothing to damage the faith of the people of Jesus the Worker.”

Several parish churches served as shelters of last resort during Irma and all remained safe.

Hermilio Calderon is the maintenance supervisor at St. Leo the Great Parish in Bonita Springs and rode the storm out in the new parish life center with his family.

With candles and an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe watching over them, Calderon knew they would be safe.

“It was scary for a time when the winds got bad and the trees bent over on their sides, but then it was over and our prayers were answered.”

When the winds subsided, Calderon knew there was a storm surge coming that was forecast to be as high as 12 feet in the area. He peered out the glass doors of the center into the courtyard shared with the education building and saw water rising rapidly in the retention pond and then gushing up and out of the storm drain.

“I was ready to get in the car and go if it came up,” he said. “That was scary because you have no idea how high it is going to get.”

Fortunately, the water only came up a short way, causing some of the classrooms to have a few inches of water. No water got in the center. A survey of the other parish buildings revealed some roof damage and leaks, but all of the damage could be fixed with time.

“Prayer works,” he said. “We were spared and St. Leo the Great still stands.”

Many parishes in the Diocese had varying degrees of damage including countless trees knocked down, but none worse than St. Elizabeth Seton.

For example, San Marco Parish on Marco Island had roof tile damage and some water intrusion, and a palm tree fell on the roof of the Blessed Sacrament Chapel. But the storm surge did not reach the parish property. Holy Family Mission, Everglades City, had more than half the shingles blown off, and the surge reached the steps of the building. St. John the Evangelist Parish, Naples, suffered roof damage to the church and parish hall with some water intrusion. The cupola of St. Ann Parish, Naples, was damaged and the church had some water inside. St. Margaret Parish, Clewiston, suffered a hole in roof of the church and other property and water damage.

Many other churches reported leaks from damage to roofs and to other buildings on the parish property. Each parish reporting damage has been visited by representatives of the diocese, insurance companies and contractors. Temporary and permanent repairs are moving forward rapidly as the Diocese of Venice Buildings Offices supervises all repair work.