VENICE | “Alleluia! Alleluia!” were the words that adorned the altar at St. Elizabeth Seton Parish in Naples Easter Sunday. The words reflect the celebration that Christ Our Lord is risen. However, on this holiest of days, the meaning was even more profound as Sunday Mass was celebrated in the church for the first time since Hurricane Irma struck more than six months ago.
“Wonderful.” “It’s true, we are home.” “Our prayers have been answered.” “What a glorious moment.” These are just some of the comments made as people entered the church for the first time on Easter Sunday. Most looked up, knowing that on Sept. 10, 2017, when the fierce winds of Irma struck, a large section of the roof was blown off, allowing water to flow in and severely damage the sanctuary.
Ann and Brian Morris evacuated when Hurricane Irma threatened, but never could have imagined the damage the storm would cause to the Parish church. “This is the center of our lives,” Brian explained. “Our condo was OK, but our church, where we go every week to pray to Our Lord, was badly damaged. It was so sad and really hard to deal with. This is a great day for us and for everyone at St. Elizabeth Seton. We are where we are supposed to be: home!”
Martie Granieri sings in the choir and was overjoyed that the church opened in time for Easter. “Christ is where you find him. He was in our gymnasium (which served as a temporary church while repairs were made), He is where we gather in his name,” Granieri said. “But this place; the church, is where we know Him best. We are so happy to be back.”
In addition to a roof repair, the ceiling and floor had extensive water damage. Water and debris also damaged the pews. While the work was being done, some changes were made to the layout of the church, including making the interior brighter. Most significantly, the tabernacle was placed directly behind the altar, and a crucifix with a corpus was placed above. The previous crucifix was relocated to the opposite wall, while a Last Supper painting was moved to one of the niches along the south wall. Statues of saints were also added around the perimeter of the church to complement the extensive stained-glass windows that were undamaged.
The church reopened Holy Thursday, 200 days after the last Mass was celebrated Sept. 9, 2017, the day before the hurricane blasted ashore.
“We are very blessed by Almighty God to be here,” said Father Russell Ruggiero, Parish Administrator, to a standing-room-only crowd prior to Easter Sunday Mass. “It is as people said — it is a resurrection.”
Eschewing any recognition for getting the church repaired, Father Ruggiero said the “congratulations are to you, not to me. I did nothing. I just tell other people what needs to be done.” He noted that the patience of the parishioners of St. Elizabeth Seton was only exceeded by the outpouring of support in the recovery effort through the sharing of time, talent and treasure.
Gesturing to the crowd and to the church itself, Father Ruggiero concluded by saying, “This is for you. This is your Parish. I am only here temporarily. My joy is that you are all happy and that you are back home.”