The pews at St. Elizabeth Seton Parish in Naples are being removed for reupholstering on Nov. 16 as the church undergoes extensive repairs, after receiving serious damage during Hurricane Irma on Sept. 10.

Irma rebuilding taking place

Progress being made at parishes and schools

NAPLES | If you were to enter the sanctuary of St. Elizabeth Seton church in Naples it would not reflect the sacred space that it is intended to be. Instead you will see pews taken apart and stacked, missing ceiling tiles and bare wood where a roof patch was installed.

This is the reality for just one of the 33 parishes and eight schools in the Diocese of Venice that received serious damage when the ferocious winds and rain of Hurricane Irma blasted across Southwest Florida Sept. 10.

When making landfall between Marco Island and Everglades City with winds of 115 mph, the storm spread a swath of damage up the spine of the state. The tree debris is removed, so the exteriors of buildings look deceptively OK. However, look up and you may see a tarp, which is often the first clue that something is amiss. A positive sign is that repair work has begun including the removal of the pews at St. Elizabeth Seton Parish, making way for the needed major repairs.

Bo Nepip, Diocesan Building Commission Director, explained that the Diocese is facing the same problem homeowners are: the slow response of insurance companies and the lack of contractors available to do the necessary work.

“It has been a struggle and we understand the frustration of the parishioners, but progress is being made,” Nepip said. “The extent of the damage across the Diocese is such that there are few contractors available to quickly do the work.”

Father Russell Ruggiero, Parish Administrator who stayed in the church during the storm when a large section of the metal roof tore off, sent a letter to the parishioners expressing his joy that the long-awaited work was set to begin.

“It is my joy and pleasure to share with you this good news,” Father Ruggiero said. “I have requested that the contractor’s focus be our church. Given the extensive damage, we are looking at three months (sometime in February) for our return. … I am sincerely appreciative and grateful for your prayers, patience and understanding. It is your support that has encouraged our staff during these challenging times. It is our belief and hope that everyone will be pleased with our church and other buildings upon their completion.”

When the roof blew off the church, large amounts of water poured in, causing damage to the ceiling, carpeting and pews. The $1.5 million renovation is just part of the work being done. The Parish hall also had water damage and will be repaired after the church work is done. The school is still awaiting insurance and contractors before the work can take place there. Meanwhile, Masses are now being celebrated in the school gymnasium. The parish was blessed that there was no major damage.
Not far away in Naples at St. John the Evangelist Parish, repairs are now taking place in the parish hall, which will be followed by the church and other campus buildings.

Jean-Paul Boucher, Parish Business Manager, updated parishioners on the parish website in the days and weeks after Irma. In a recent bulletin, he expressed his thanks to the faithful for matching an anonymous donor challenge of $200,000 in just three weeks.

“The love and generosity of our Parish family always overwhelms me each time there is a plea for our stewardship,” Boucher said. “From the efforts we made after Hurricane Irma to the daily support for those in need in our community and around the world, St. John (the Evangelist Parish) always answers the call.”

Another example of work needing to be done is at St. Margaret Parish in Clewiston. There was damage to the roofs of the church, rectory, classroom and offices. The remote location on the southern edge of Lake Okeechobee has delayed finding suitable contractors, Nepip explained.

San Marco Parish on Marco Island needs a new roof for its church as well. While the church was spared the feared storm surge of Irma, which could have been catastrophic, the winds compromised the tiled roof requiring a total replacement. This damage was not discovered until after inspectors had the opportunity to see the damage up close.

In all, 33 parishes and eight schools received serious damage. In all cases mitigation was done to prevent further damage and to allow buildings to be used if they were deemed safe. Nepip estimates it could take at least until summer 2018 before all repair work of damage caused by Hurricane Irma will be complete.