The lush tropical setting of St. Isabel Parish on Sanibel Island is now a stark landscape that has lost its colorful and tranquil beauty in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian. It was on Sept. 28, 2022, when the Category 4 storm, with winds of 155 mph and a massive storm surge, inundated the entire island.
St. Isabel Parish, which is located on a high point toward the east side of the island, had major damage. The church and parish hall are intact but had extensive water damage. Unfortunately, the Parish rectory was not so lucky. There is extensive damage with holes in the roof, as well as impacts from the surge which filled the entire building.
Father Edward Martin, Pastor of St. Isabel, evacuated to a home on the mainland and visited the Parish property on Oct. 24.
“It was shocking to see the devastation on the island and then to the Parish property,” Father Martin said. “The church and hall are intact. There was no damage in the sanctuary and the roof is intact. So, we might have to remove some pews that were sitting in water and a few other things, but otherwise we are going to leave everything. This means they can be fixed, and we will be back.”
The water intrusion to the church and hall was from the pressure of the surge, but no actually flowing water came into these buildings as doors and windows held fast even though water on the sides of the building reached 3 feet. The height of the surge was actually much higher as the church and hall are 5 feet above the grade of the nearby road.
Father Martin said he expects to either set up a tent outside for Mass in the coming weeks, or that the hall can be repaired quickly to accommodate the Liturgy.
Inside the church and hall, even a month after the storm, was standing water and muck (a congealed mix of water, sand, dirt and other debris). Contractors hired by the Diocese to dry out both buildings were working in the church and hall by Oct. 25.
The challenge for recovery on Sanibel is that the causeway, a three-mile bridge and island system from the mainland, was destroyed and only recently reopened. Traffic is being limited to residents, first responders and contractors. However, there is no power or running water on the island and no clear estimate as to when it will be restored.
Parish Business Manager Khristy Sheer, who has been a resident on Sanibel for 33 years, also evacuated and returned to the island by boat, once to see her home, which had surge through the second floor and roof damage allowing water into the top floors. Her personal losses are extensive and heartbreaking.
Her next trip to Sanibel was to visit the Parish with Diocesan Building Manager, Joe Rego, and insurance adjustors. They found the devastation there to be extensive but were feeling blessed that it wasn’t much worse.
One of the reasons the damage wasn’t worse was attributed to the fact that the church had a major renovation and upgrade after Hurricane Charley ripped the roof off in 2004. A similar upgrade took place in the Parish Hall in 2016. All this held back the worst of the winds and most of the water.
The landscaped grounds are a jumbled mess, but the main bronze statue of St. Isabel as well as a statue of St. Bernadette and Mary next to a cross, were unscathed.
“God was sitting with us,” Sheer said. “This Island and this Parish are important in my life. Just like the island we will get the Parish up and running as a place of peace for everyone.”
While seasonal visitors and residents are reaching out to come and help right now, Sheer explained that now is not the time, as the recovery of the Island and the Parish will be a big job that takes time.
“We are determined to move forward, shoulder-to-shoulder and we will come back strong,” she said.
The Parish has set up a Rebuilding Fund for the church, hall, rectory and grounds which can be supported at https://www.wesharegiving.org/app/giving/WeShare-2150.