Special collection aids Diocesan hurricane recovery

The Diocese of Venice continues its recovery from Hurricane Ian which devastated the region on Sept. 28, 2022, with winds up to 155 mph and storm surge and flooding rains.

The recovery has been aided thanks to the kindness of many who saw the plight of the Parishes in the Diocese of Venice and contributed to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) 2022 Special Collection for the Bishops’ Emergency Disaster Fund. The Diocese of Venice has been awarded $1.383 million from the USCCB collection.

Since the time of the founding of the Diocese in 1984, the faithful have generously responded to help others through special collections, and now this generosity is coming back to our own Diocese, as it did following Hurricane Charley in 2004 and Hurricane Irma in 2017.

Bishop Frank J. Dewane said he was personally grateful, on behalf of the faithful of the Diocese of Venice, “to all of the people who contributed to the Bishops’ Emergency Disaster Fund Special Collection in the wake of Hurricane Ian. The devastation to communities in the area, and even to the infrastructure of the Diocese, was catastrophic. Even today, as families continue the process of rebuilding, so do our Diocesan Parishes. I also wish to thank my fellow Bishops who saw the need in the Diocese of Venice and were generous to those Parishes who were most burdened financially when disaster struck.”

Ian took a heavy toll on the Diocese of Venice, with more than 685 reports of damage to various structures. Significant damage was found in more than 400 structures, including at 30 Parishes and 10 Catholic schools, as well as at many other Diocesan entities. The resulting cost to rebuild exceeded what many Parishes could begin to manage.

Bishop Dewane, on behalf of the Diocese of Venice, made a formal request for grant money raised through the Bishops’ Emergency Disaster Fund. This application included a complete description of damages, with accompanying photos, as well as the entities financial situations.

At a USCCB meeting, the Subcommittee on Catholic Home Missions awarded a $1.383 million grant from the Bishops’ Emergency Disaster Fund to the Diocese of Venice. This grant money was designated to assist 13 Parishes in the Diocese that serve impoverished communities and had sustained severe damage from Hurricane Ian. The funds received covered a significant portion of the insurance deductibles – in some cases hundreds of thousands of dollars – and costs that Parishes owed for new roofs, mold mitigation, and other repairs that otherwise didn’t have resources.

Parishes receiving a portion of the grant monies included Jesus the Worker (San Jose Mission), Fort Myers; Our Lady Queen of Martyrs, Sarasota; San Antonio, Port Charlotte; St. Andrew, Cape Coral; St. Catherine, Sebring; St. Charles Borromeo, Port Charlotte; St. James, Lake Placid; St. Joseph the Worker, Moore Haven; St. Katharine Drexel, Cape Coral; St. Maximilian Kolbe, Port Charlotte; St. Michael, Wauchula; St. Paul, Arcadia; and St. Francis Xavier, Fort Myers.

The Bishops’ Emergency Disaster fund was established as a way for Dioceses to take up special collections in response to disasters and humanitarian crises. The fund supports USCCB efforts for pastoral and reconstruction efforts.

“St. Paul wrote that when one Christian suffers, all Christians suffer – because we are all part of one Body of Christ,” said Bishop James S. Wall of Gallup, Chairman of the USCCB Committee on National Collections. “That unity is the heart of (special) collections. They bring faith, hope, and love to people in despair… and to disaster victims in our own nation.”

Bishop Dewane and Diocese of Venice Chancellor Dr. Volodymyr Smeryk visited impacted Parishes to see firsthand the extent of the damages and to learn of specific financial hardship. Parishes reported severe damage to churches, rectories and other Parish facilities.

Grant awards were announced in July, with the Diocese of Venice awarded $1.383 million. Smeryk said the grants assisted substantially in helping the most impoverished Parishes to recover from Ian faster than would otherwise have been possible.

In addition to the Bishops’ Emergency Disaster Fund grants, the Diocese was also the beneficiary of emergency grants from Catholic Charities USA in the weeks following the storm, support which continues to this day. This support went to the immediate disaster response, helping people with emergency supplies such as food and water. Catholic Charities USA’s generous contribution continues to help even today, now providing long-term disaster recovery and financial assistance for families who continue to rebuild from Hurricane Ian more than one year later.

OLPH reopens with celebration

It is fitting that the formal reopening of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Retreat Center (OLPH) in Venice was a Mass, with a blessing of the new Chapel altar.

Bishop Frank J. Dewane presided over the Mass on Oct. 1, 2023, marking the official recovery of the retreat center after Hurricane Ian caused extensive flooding damage a year earlier.

“When the hurricane passed through, we knew there was much to be done,” Bishop Dewane said. “This had to be a priority to be fixed up, opened up, and functioning again, because of what this holy ground represents.”

“OLPH is a positive experience for so many people, where they have come to discover or receive God’s Mercy,” the Bishop continued. “This retreat center is a blessing to the Diocese and it has had struggles and highlights. We are now going through a new highlight.”

During the Mass, Bishop Dewane formally blessed the new altar first with a prayer of blessing and then with Holy Water and incense. Following the blessing, the altar was formally dressed, and the Mass proceeded.

OLPH Director Father Mark Yavarone, Oblate of the Virgin Mary, thanked the many present for their support in the recovery process. Father Yavarone pointed out the leadership of Bishop Dewane and Diocesan Chancellor Volodymyr Smeryk as the impetus to getting the retreat center open so quickly. The retreat center has been hosting retreats since late August and is very busy. In fact, a men’s Cursillo group was at OLPH for the weekend of the reopening celebration.

Large portions of the clean up after the hurricane and the rebuilding was made possible thanks to the help of many benefactors and volunteers. The financial support helped a great deal, but it was the volunteers whose expertise and love was put into helping with landscaping clearing and replanting, as well as the construction of the new furniture, saving OLPH tens of thousands in added expenses.

“We could not have survived without you,” Father Yavarone said to those gathered. He also praised his small staff for overcoming the many obstacles and logistics to get OLPH back to functioning fully in less than a year.

Father also reflected upon his first visit to the property by kayak a few days after Ian, witnessing the destruction up close, with all seven of the major buildings flooded. This included the Chapel, conference center, dining hall and four residential buildings. It was not until 10 days after the storm when the damage could be surveyed by foot.

“When I first came back on property on foot and saw all of the mold and destruction, I had an unsettling thought – ‘I wonder if the Bishop and Chancellor are going to pull the plug?’ But, I never heard a discouraging word. The question was ‘How can we rebuild to make the retreat center better than it was?’ and the focus has been on achieving that goal to where we are today,” Father said.

Bishop Dewane lauded Father Yavarone for his own leadership in guiding OLPH in its recovery process, doing off-site retreats at Epiphany Cathedral and Our Lady of Lourdes in Venice and San Pedro in North Port, all to ensure the ministry of the retreat center still reached many people, even if the physical buildings could not be used.

“Father never lost heart, because as we all know, OLPH has been a positive experience for so many people through the years and will continue to do so for many more to come,” Bishop Dewane said. “Thank you, Father Mark, for all you have done.”

Those gathered gave Father a standing ovation.

In addition to benefactors and volunteers, also present for the reopening were Carmelite Father J.J. McCarthy, former director of OLPH, and Sister Carmella Decosty, Sister of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary, who helped establish OLPH with Redemptorist Father Charlie Mallen in 1995.

A reception was held in the conference center and guests were offered a tour of the rebuilt facilities. At the reception, the faithful were also introduced to Father Greg Cleveland, the new OLPH assistant director.

OLPH offers a variety of individual and group retreats as well as Ignatian Spiritual Exercises.

For more information about OLPH, or if you would like to offer financial support, please visit www.olph-retreat.org or call 941-486-0233.

Ian recovery continues – Long term help evolves to meet unmet needs

Even before Hurricane Ian slammed into the coast of Southwest Florida on Sept. 28, 2022, Catholic Charities, Diocese of Venice, Inc., was gearing up to respond. In the intervening 12 months, the organization, with its teams of staff and volunteers, have been taking action to help people in a variety of ways.

First, after the winds, storm surge, and floods subsided, Catholic Charities was on the scene providing emergency supplies to thousands. That assistance transitioned over time to meet more complex needs beyond the basics of food and water to offering financial and other support.

Now, one year later, there are still many who need help in their recovery process. Therefore, Catholic Charities has partnered with Lee County to be the lead agency on a dedicated recovery team. The Lee County Long Term Recovery Group (LTRG) is a team of staff who are focusing on collaborating with dozens of not-for-profit, government, and private sector stakeholders to provide a “safety net” for Hurricane Ian survivors.

As a facilitator, the LTRG will help maximize the effects of the many agencies working to help Ian survivors with a goal to restore them to their pre-storm status, within reason.

Catholic Charities CEO Eddie Gloria said the LTRG is working on a long-term plan that focuses on fixing homes and infrastructure, improving the economy, providing social services and financial relief, and preparing for future disasters.

This process is backed by Bishop Frank J. Dewane, who saw the wisdom of this focused effort, as Catholic Charities will support the LTRG by providing full-time staff, guiding its strategy, helping with activities, measuring progress, raising awareness, influencing policy, and finding funding for recovery efforts in Lee County during the next five years.

Catie Eck, formerly of Lee County Emergency Management, was selected as the LTRG Director, and has been working to hire staff to ensure that as individuals go through the process of recovery, the pieces are in place to help them.

“If your primary residence was in Lee County on Sept. 28, 2022, and you have sustained damage or have been impacted by loss of work then they will come to our attention,” Eck said. “There is a great and continuing need in Lee County. It may not be obvious, but it is there. This group is here to help fill in the gaps of people who have exhausted the assistance that was initially made available to them and can’t reasonably complete their recovery from Ian by themselves.”

Initially, there were more than 2,200 who were identified as still needing immediate assistance, but that number has been whittled down to 311, a number that will evolve over time. This group of people have been handed over to designated disaster case managers.

Eck explained that the LTRG has resources that will be used to help people, such as licensed general contractors, suppliers who can offer construction material, a warehouse of donated items (clothes, furniture and other items), groups of volunteers who can do labor, as well as organizations who can offer financial support when other resources don’t fill the gap.

“This way, when a case comes before the board, everybody comes together to get a person what they need,” Eck explained. “We are striving to make them whole, to pre-Ian levels, but when that isn’t possible, we will work to get them as close to that as we can.”

During LTRG process, a person with an unmet need would approach a partner agency (Catholic Charites, United Way, etc.), and they would then be referred to a case manager. The applicant will be helped through the paperwork which will document damage, what recovery actions have been done since the storm and what help has been received. This includes making sure the person did everything to help themselves and used any aid appropriately (insurance, FEMA, etc.), before finally establishing that there is a true need.

Once a need is identified, the case manager will then put together a proposal on how to fill the gap, which is then presented to the unmet needs group. At that point, resources (roof repair, drywall, labor) are assigned, when available. If there is still a monetary gap, the funding aspect will come into play. There, the partner organizations would then divide up the financial burden based on available funding so no one agency takes on an undue burden.

This case management process eliminates duplication of aid and allows participating agencies to help the maximum number of people with the resources that are available. Those resources can come in the form of donations, grants and government funding, but they are not unlimited and the LTRG is responsible to ensure the money is being used as intended.

While the initial case management number is at 311, Eck said that the recovery process will take a long time.

“People are still recovering from Hurricane Katrina (2005),” Eck said. “You must remember, Lee County lost a municipality (Fort Myers Beach); the barrier islands and large parts of Cape Coral were under water, and more than 60% of hotel rooms were initially gone. We are coming back strong, but we are nowhere near where we need to be. This is why the LTRG exists; to continue to be there to help people who are in need.”

Eck noted that there are many who still need to clean out their homes from flood damage, others who have tarps on their roofs, some are living in the shell of a home or are in temporary housing waiting to return home.

“These are the people we will help,” Eck said.

While the LRTG will help as many people in need as possible, there are limits. First, if the financial need is greater than the capability of the supporting organizations, a decision can be made to deny a claim in preference to apportioning that aid to more people. Eck said these instances will be rare, but as an agency dealing with funding from different sources, most donated, there is a responsibility to use the money appropriately.

For those who are unwilling to provide the required documentation of their recovery, including financial disclosures, or even apply for state federal aid, Eck said there is little that can be done because of the inability to ensure donor intent.

Others who may be eligible for help in the future are the many who are still fighting their insurance company for a final claim. If the status of such an applicant changes and resources are then exhausted and unmet needs are identified, the LTRG will step in to fill the gap.

As the LTRG becomes more operational, Eck said a hotline will be established, but for now, cases are being filtered through the various agencies that are part of the overall group, such as Catholic Charities, the United Way and more.

“This Long Term Recovery Group is unique in that Lee County had the foresight to fund the staffing,” Eck said. “Catholic Charities then stepped up to take the lead. Government usually doesn’t work in that manner, but the scope of the disaster and the number of people who are still in need made this the best way to bring many different organizations together help the most people possible.”

Volunteers help restore OLPH

Our Lady of Perpetual Help Retreat Center in Venice has always relied upon volunteers to support its outreach within the Diocese of Venice, never more so than now as the recovery from Hurricane Ian heads into its final phase.

An appeal for volunteers with strong backs was posted to social media on June 13, 2023, to the members of the various Hispanic movements to help plant flowers and bushes while others assembled furniture.

The movements (Charismatic, Emmaus and more) have a strong connection to OLPH with hundreds of members taking part in retreats through the years. With little surprise, the response to the appeal was immediate and overwhelming as dozens agreed to spend a few hours on June 17 helping OLPH return to its previous glory following devastating flooding caused by Hurricane Ian in September 2022.

The flooding washed away or destroyed nearly all the vegetation, and water entered each of the buildings on the property. Access to the property was not available for 11 days. The work to recover began immediately, but due to the scope of the work and many logistical factors, the restoration is not expected to be completed until September, about 12 months after the storm.

OLPH Director of Spirituality Father Mark Yavarone, Oblate of the Virgin Mary, was pleased by the number of volunteers, noting that more came than were ever expected. Therefore, Father spent much of June 17 assigning volunteers to various tasks throughout the property and getting them supplies and ensuring they stayed hydrated on the hot and muggy day.

Each volunteer got right to work, giving back to the retreat center which has provided so much to them in the past.

One man who helped assemble furniture had been coming to OLPH for Emmaus retreats for 10 years and called them a highlight of each year.

“This is such a peaceful place and coming for retreats was a wonderful experience. When I heard about the destruction, it was heartbreaking. When the call came for volunteers, I knew this was a way to give back to a place that means so much to me and many others,” Raul Martinez of St. Jude Parish in Sarasota said.

The towering oak trees were among the only vegetation that survived the flood, therefore the focus of volunteers with green thumbs was on landscaping in front of the conference center and dining hall, as well as at two of the villas. Volunteers previously had planted new flora around the OLPH Shrine.

The furniture was destined for Villas I and II, which will be used for a small group beginning on June 30. No other facilities are far enough along in their reconstruction to accommodate any retreats until late July. A full retreat schedule is expected by sometime in September as the last major work will include the installation of flooring and kitchen equipment. The last section of OLPH to be complete will be St. Joseph Chapel, which is currently being used for temporary offices and storage of much of the furniture and equipment.

Father Yavarone said the restoration of OLPH is taking place in the same sequence of the original construction, with the two main buildings and two villas the first priority and the larger villas and chapel last.

While much was accomplished by the volunteers on June 17, much more work needs to be done in the coming months and additional volunteers will be needed for a variety of projects. To be added to the OLPH volunteer list, please visit https://www.olph-retreat.org/new-volunteer or if you have any questions, please contact Dee Isabelle at isabelle@olph-retreat.org.

How to help OLPH recovery

OLPH is still raising money to cover expenses not covered by insurance. One specific way to help is to sponsor the purchase of a new Chapel chair. OLPH officials were able to locate the vendor that provided the previous chairs in 1999 and have begun the process of procuring new chairs. The new chairs will be very similar, however, the upholstery will be burgundy befitting of St. Joseph. Each chair costs $233.00. If you are interested in sponsoring a chair, a plaque will be installed at the back of the chair with your chosen inscription. To support this effort, please visit https://www.olph-retreat.org/sponsor-a-chapel-chair.

For additional options on ways to support OLPH, please visit https://www.olph-retreat.org/the-olph-annual-fund-and-ways-to-give.

Wounds of Ian linger on Boca Grande

Life on Gasparilla Island and the island community of Boca Grande appears to be back to normal seven months after Hurricane Ian. Businesses are open, streets are bustling with visitors and the recent snowbird season was robust.

But a closer look and it becomes clear that much needs to be done as this island community works to recover from the storm that lashed the area with winds estimated at 155 mph. Tarps still cover many roofs, exposed siding is commonplace, and there are signs everywhere marking where contractors are working on the interiors of homes.

Father Jerome Carosella, Pastor of Our Lady of Mercy Parish, explained how the aftermath of Ian still affects everyday life on Boca Grande.

“Even when people don’t talk about Ian directly, you know that each person is fighting with their insurance company or awaiting work to be completed. They are frustrated and want work done but people also know everyone else is going through the same thing, so it has united us in a strange way,” Father Carosella said. “This shared experience has brought about so many good people. Strangers helping strangers. Neighbors getting to know their neighbors. We all realize that whatever damage we have, it could have been so much worse.”

Islands immediately to the south of Gasparilla Island, such as Captiva, Sanibel and Fort Myers Beach, were inundated by up to 15 feet of storm surge, causing catastrophic damage.

“Make no mistake, parts of Boca Grande were badly damaged, so much so that some people are never returning and deciding to sell. But about 80% or more are determined to stay and rebuild. Our Lady of Mercy is doing that rebuilding alongside everyone else,” Father Carosella added.

The Parish had roof damage to the church, rectory, and pre-school. Each had water intrusion from the heavy rain that came with Ian. The pre-school also had water flow into the building when the nearby street flooded. The new parish hall, which was nearly completed by the time Ian struck on Sept. 28, 2022, had only superficial damage.

“The pre-school roof was hit by the best mango tree on the island, and flood water also went right through the front door,” Father Carosella explained about the school which has 30 children and is run by Catholic Charities, Diocese of Venice, Inc., while the Parish covers all costs. “We focused on getting the interior fixed so we could be here for the children and their families. And three months later we reopened.”

The corner of the roof that was hit by the mango tree is still in need of repairs, as are the church and rectory roofs. Each was covered with a protective padding that is water-resistant, but regular weather is stressing the temporary fixes.

“We had a big windstorm last night and it pulled some of the covering off the church roof,” Father Carosella said on April 28, 2023. “But we are expecting the roofs to be repaired sometime in June. That is great considering where we were right after Ian.”

Delays in repairs are being caused by a lack of material and contractors.

Unlike during Hurricane Charley in 2004, Father Carosella evacuated ahead of Ian when friends in the fire department and Sheriff’s Office told him they too were leaving the barrier island.

So, Father put the storm shutters in place and took the Blessed Sacrament, the consecrated Communion hosts, to St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Grove City for safekeeping. Then he went to stay with parishioner-friends in South Gulf Cove on the mainland in Charlotte County.

Father Carosella returned to Boca Grande on Sept. 30, two days after the storm struck, having to wait until the waters on the island receded enough to allow passage of trucks.

What Father found was heartbreaking but not nearly as bad as he had feared. Other nearby churches, businesses and homes suffered much worse. Within a block of Our Lady of Mercy a cellular tower collapsed and cut a bakery in half, while a Baptist church had its roof, steeple and a wall blown out, and nearly every home in view had serious damage. Debris was everywhere and although he was not sure where to begin the cleanup, a guardian angel was soon coming to the rescue.

“A guy with a big truck and trailer pulled up and asked, ‘Can I help you?’” Father Carosella said he was amazed that a stranger would offer to help, but quickly accepted. “Gary Chelli is from St. Petersburg and had visited Boca Grande before, but I didn’t know him. He said he came down because he wanted to help. He had asked someone at the fire department where help was needed and they asked if he was Catholic and directed him my way. And Gary kept coming back for days with tarps, gas and water while helping to clear debris and make temporary repairs. He was a big help and we have become good friends.”

The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass was celebrated the first day back on the island with just a few people, and repair work at the parish has been slow, but steady as each milestone is celebrated.

“We are getting there,” Father said. “They recently finished the work on the front rooms of the rectory and that is great. They had to replace the floors and walls and are now putting the finishing touches on the paint. You can’t even tell there was any damage.”

With that work behind, Father Carosella said only a few items need to be taken care of, such as repairing and reinstalling the old-style wood shutters, and of course the installation of the new roofs.

“We have come a long way since Ian. A big turning point for the community was the Christmas tree lighting ceremony in the town square. Everyone gathered for this quiet moment in between all of the reconstruction to thank the Lord for what we have. We are all so blessed.”

If you would like to support the Diocese of Venice in its recovery from Hurricane Ian, please visit www.dioceseofvenice.org/hurricaneian.

 

Sanibel recovery progressing

Each Sunday, the bulletin at St. Isabel Parish on Sanibel offers an update on the latest efforts to recover from the devastating impacts of Hurricane Ian after the barrier island and Parish were overwhelmed by storm surge and wind damage.

It is Pastor Father Edward Martin’s goal to ensure that the rebuild goes as quickly and smoothly as possible. Father also wants to be sure to keep parishioners appraised on what is taking place and how the Parish is moving forward through the complicated process while dealing with city code and compliance requirements, contractors and much more.

While each step in the recovery is important, it can sometimes be difficult to envision when the work will be done when delays are taking place due to supply-chain issues or other factors. When Hurricane Ian roared ashore with winds near 155 mph and a storm surge of 10 feet inundating Sanibel, the storm and severely impacted every home and business. The storm wrecked the Parish priest rectory, while saltwater intruded into the Parish church and hall. While the amount of water inside was only a few inches, the impacts were severe.

The severity was caused by the corrosive nature of saltwater, combined with a lack of access to the island for several weeks as the Sanibel Causeway was repaired. A Diocesan team accessed the island by boat to view the damage and determine what needed to be done to prevent further damage, but by the time the Causeway reopened and the island, county, state, and federal authorities determined it was safe to allow access for contractors, more damage had occurred.

This delay meant the water had time to be absorbed by the drywall, flooring, furniture, equipment doors, and pews. Once the property was accessible, contractors brought in heavy equipment and dryers to help mitigate further damage. This is the standard process for the Diocese Buildings Department for areas impacted by natural disasters.

Once detailed assessments were made of the property, it was determined that the rectory was a total loss and that the drywall and floors of the church and hall needed to be removed. Some additional drywall and ceiling work was needed because of damage to the roof and HVAC systems in both buildings. In addition, nearly the entire contents of both buildings needed to be replaced.

Father Martin said there have been great improvements made at the Parish and across the island since Hurricane Ian, but most understand why all the work isn’t completed as they deal with their own recovery.

“Everyone here on Sanibel has suffered. We are going through this together,” Father Martin said. “People are buoyed by any progress, and when you hear stories of the work being done each day, that is uplifting for everyone. Here, the work to clean up the property and fix the landscaping has made a huge difference in how everyone feels. It is good to see, and we are blessed with all of the support we have received since the hurricane.”

Joe Rego, Diocese of Venice Director of Building and Construction said “by mid-April the drywall work in the church and hall were completed. Next, we are in the process of securing flooring proposals as well as waterproofing in the church.”

The main doors to the church and hall are being replaced. However, due to their size and a need to ensure they can handle any future hurricanes, getting them replaced is still a few months away.

Another example of both progress and delays are the new pews. Rego explained how the replacements were ordered three months ago, but there is up to an eight-month lead time to get them delivered and installed. The progress in the hall is further along, but the floors and kitchen are still in process, again due to unforeseen delays. Meanwhile, the HVAC systems to both buildings have been replaced, but final repairs to the roof are awaiting materials.

“This is not unique to St. Isabel. We are seeing these issues everywhere within the disaster zone. If we had all the supplies available, we’d be much further along in the recovery, but that just isn’t the reality,” Rego said.

The initial progress of mitigation was first evident Dec. 11, 2022, when the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass returned after an absence of 74 days.

Bishop Frank J. Dewane celebrated the first Mass after Hurricane Ian, saying he was humbled to be with the parishioners and to pray with them in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament. Bishop Dewane said that we are united in the Holy Eucharist, and prayed that the grace of the Lord gives the faithful the strength needed to rebuild from Hurricane Ian.

The Bishop stressed that as difficult as it was to see the church and Parish property with such extensive damage, “the physical church is just a building. You are the Church! What is strong is the people who make up the Church.”

During his visit, Bishop Dewane was given a tour of the property to see firsthand the extent of the damage and what was needed for a complete recovery.

Since that Sunday in December, Father Martin has been celebrating Mass as mats cover a floor which was stripped bare to the concrete base. With the pews removed, folding chairs are in their place.

“We were blessed that the main sanctuary, where the altar and tabernacle are located, was untouched by the hurricane. What we have left is a bit primitive, but it works,” Father said.

When the work in the hall is completed, the Mass will be temporarily transferred to help facilitate the reconstruction of the church.

The repair work will take time to be completed, as the devastation is unprecedented, not only to the people of Sanibel, but to the entire region which received extreme damage from Hurricane Ian while displacing thousands.

If you would like to support the rebuilding effort for St. Isabel Parish, please visit https://www.saintisabel.org/ or go to https://dioceseofvenice.org/hurricaneian/.

Retreat Center hurricane recovery ongoing

When Hurricane Ian’s floodwaters of the Myakka River receded a week after devastating Our Lady of Perpetual Help Retreat Center in Venice, it was clear it would take prayer, focus, determination, and lots of patience for the “Jewel of the Myakka” to return to its former glory.

OLPH Director, Father Mark Yavarone, Oblate of the Virgin Mary, first inspected the property by kayak on Sept. 29, 2022, the day after the hurricane. At that time, the Myakka River waters had risen to cover the entire property and were as high as they had ever been since OLPH was founded in 1988. Father noted at the time he was shocked to see the water so high, unaware that the menacing river was not done rising.

Sadly, the river crested on Oct. 2, 2 ½ feet above the record, and the result was at least 18-24 inches of water inside all the buildings on the property. It wasn’t until Oct. 10, 12 days after the hurricane, that the waters had receded enough to examine the damage in person.

OLPH was just finishing a major renovation program which marked the 25th anniversary of the retreat center. Father Yavarone said all of the flooring in every building had just been completely replaced as well as several other upgrades. In fact, the last piece needed to complete the project was a few metal panels on the roof of the dining hall. The roofs held, but the water rose and inflicted severe damage.

As soon as the property was accessible, the cleaning process began. What could be salvaged was, but the interiors of each of the villas, the dining hall, conference center and chapel were gutted. The landscaping, which always creates a serene setting for all who visited, was a jumbled mess with trees down and everything covered in a slime left over from the river’s passage. Even while the property was still covered in muck, bald eagles, osprey, herons, ibis, and alligators were seen in abundance.

Once the mitigation and drying out process was completed, the reconstruction began.

Joe Rego, Diocesan Director of Building and Construction, said a lack of contractors, supplies and other unforeseen obstacles have pushed the rebuilding back several months.

“This is a regionwide issue,” Rego explained. “Everyone is dealing with this. We had to first rewire everything and then put in drywall. Then the flooring. These things take time. The work is being done in a systematic way so we can get OLPH back open as soon as possible.”

Father Yavarone said the work has focused on the dining hall, conference center and Villas I and II.

“It turns out, this is the order the retreat center was built, so there is a symmetry to this,” Father said. “With those spaces available we will be able to start private retreats in June.”

Those retreats are already booked, and if the progress continues at its current pace, by August or September, the retreat center will be completely reopened for guests and larger group overnight retreats. Those bookings are already taking place, something Father said cannot wait.

“I cannot help but think that our retreat center has passed through a time of pruning,” Father wrote in a March reflection. “This is true even in a physical sense, as the destruction of the hurricane has already led to small but important improvements. For example, the removal of drywall exposed pipes in the villas that would soon have burst. Those pipes have now been replaced. Worn 25-year-old furniture, kitchen appliances, and sound systems are also being replaced… The end result, God willing, will be a facility fitted to bear fruit for decades.”

Father Yavarone said he has been overwhelmed by the outpouring of support by the faithful, and their sadness over the damage, with many saying how much OLPH means to them.

While the retreat center is closed to visitors, Father Yavarone, and Father Shawn Monahan, OMV, have been hosting retreats at Epiphany Cathedral and Our Lady of Lourdes in Venice. They have also gone to several other area Parishes for talks.

The Monthly Day of Prayer continues at off-site locations while OLPH continues to recover from Hurricane Ian. The day begins at 9:30 a.m. with continental breakfast, and includes two conferences, lunch, Eucharistic Adoration, Mass, and opportunities for the Sacrament of Reconciliation, private meditation, and prayer. The day concludes with Mass that ends at 3:15 p.m. For the May sessions, Father Monahan will be the presenter. The topic for each day is “Two Gifts: Anger and Forgiveness,” as Father Monahan concludes the series of “Healing our Broken Hearts”. The cost is $40. The May events are Wednesday, May 10, at the Our Lady of Lourdes Education Center, 1301 Center Road, Venice, and Sunday May 14, at Epiphany Cathedral Parish Center, 310 Sarasota St., Venice. To register, please visit https://olph-retreat.org/monthly-day-of-prayer.

If you would like to directly support the OLPH Hurricane Ian recovery, please visit https://www.olph-retreat.org/olph-status-after-hurricane-ian.

Six months since Ian – Progress being made as recovery continues

“We are making progress.”

This simple phrase, repeated in recent weeks by people throughout the Diocese of Venice, represents the resilience, hope and bright future as the region marks the six months since Hurricane Ian struck on Sept. 28, 2022.

The statistics from the National Weather Service do little to tell the scope of the impact of Hurricane Ian. Maximum sustained winds were 155 mph, the storm surge reached 18 feet, flooding rain exceeded 30 inches, and this was followed by catastrophic river flooding days later. The death toll in Florida was 148 (104 within the 10-county Diocese of Venice). In Lee County alone, 5,000 homes and businesses were destroyed and another 50,000 had significant damage with upwards of $60 billion in overall insured losses.

Ian took a heavy toll on the Diocese, with more than 800 reports of damage to various properties and significant damage to more than 400 structures.

Under the leadership of Bishop Frank J. Dewane, teams from the Diocese, as well as Catholic Charities, Diocese of Venice, Inc., were preparing for the hurricane’s arrival and then sprang into action by getting on the road assessing damage and taking action to mitigate further damage while also bringing emergency supplies to areas in greatest need.

The small staff of Catholic Charities, with the help of hundreds of volunteers, set up 10 distribution sites, with the help of the Parishes, where water, food and other supplies were distributed to more than 110,000 people during the initial weeks following the storm. That response has transitioned into long-term disaster recovery because within the 10-county Diocese more than 400,000 applications for FEMA assistance have been made.

Bishop Dewane praised the staff, Parish volunteers, and supporters of Catholic Charities for coming together in the wake of Hurricane Ian. “Catholic Charities accomplished a tremendous amount and did a great deal of work. There is much more that needs to be done, and the team is in position, on the front lines, making a difference each day.”

Joe Rego, Diocesan Director of Building and Construction, said that after mitigation work was done to prevent further damage to Diocesan properties, the long process of rebuilding began immediately.

“While there was a will and desire to work fast, the realities of the moment became immediately apparent,” Rego explained. “The issue across the area was that there are limited numbers of contractors and supplies available to do the work.”

Rego went on to say that priorities were placed on Fort Myers Beach, Sanibel, Pine Island, Fort Myers and elsewhere, but only so much could be done with the resources that were available immediately after the storm.

“Now, with more supplies and contractors available, the Diocese is ramping up work at every location,” Rego said. “We have contractors working as fast as possible at dozens of sites. Parishes and schools are now seeing the fruits of the hard work.”

With one exception, nearly all reconstruction is expected to be substantially completed by the fall. The exception is Ascension Parish and the adjacent Poor Clare Monastery of San Damiano on Fort Myers Beach, which experienced a 15-foot storm surge and destroyed all but two buildings.

“The two surviving buildings (the rectory and monastery convent) are safe and secure, but they both need to be rewired and have new pipes due to saltwater intrusion put in just to make them functional,” Rego said. “We are targeting the fall for that work to be done. The other buildings will be torn down and it will take several years for the rebuild to be complete.”

That overall reconstruction timeline is very similar to the aftermath of Hurricane Charley in 2004, when two Parish churches were destroyed, and it took four years for the reconstruction to be completed. However, as we all know, prices have risen substantially since 2004.

Bishop Dewane said that the amount of work already achieved in Parishes and Diocesan Catholic schools and other properties, has been impressive. During his travels throughout the Diocese, he regularly witnesses firsthand the progress being made in the hardest hit areas.

“While we want this work done as quickly as possible, we don’t have to look too far around the community to see that no one is rebuilding quickly,” Bishop Dewane. “But from that destruction strength and resilience bloomed, mixed in with lots of patience, as the recovery from Hurricane Ian continue.”

As the rebuilding and recovery from Hurricane Ian continues within the Diocese of Venice, the details of several of the large rebuilding efforts will be updated in the Florida Catholic.

For those interested in making a financial donation to the Diocesan response to Hurricane Ian, please visit www.dioceseofvenice.org/hurricaneian, or send a check to Diocese of Venice in Florida, ATTN: Hurricane Ian Relief, 1000 Pinebrook Road, Venice, FL 34285.

Cathedral students back in main building after Ian damage

Damage caused by Ian repaired within 100 days

Patience, teamwork, hard work, perseverance, and faith were all needed to overcome the destructive impacts of Hurricane Ian at Epiphany Cathedral Catholic School in Venice.

In less than 100 days, repairs to the main school building were far enough along to ensure all students would safely and joyfully return to their original classroom. It was Sept. 28, 2022, when Hurricane Ian tore off the roof of the main building, allowing water to pour into the classrooms. Replacement of the roof, HVAC and other items, as well as the ceiling tiles and floors of nearly every room, were needed before a return to the classroom could take place.

A celebration of this momentous accomplishment occurred during the morning assembly on Jan. 9, 2023. Students, faculty, staff, and parents gathered as everyone cheered the reopening of the building which houses grades one through eight.

“What a wonderful day,” Principal Nicole Loseto proclaimed. “When the hurricane struck everyone rallied together to salvage what we could to relocate classrooms all over the campus in just two days. It was a challenge to move everyone to a new location and it was seamless and beautiful… Now everyone came together to get us back into our main building. Thank you, everyone!”

Loseto singled-out several maintenance and support staff who went above and beyond in their help during the crisis. She also praised Bishop Frank J. Dewane and his Diocesan staff for overcoming many issues since the storm. Also recognized were Cathedral Rector, Msgr. Patrick Dubois, and Operations Manager Wendy Barraso, for overseeing the logistics of the repairs.

Only the pre-kindergarten students were not displaced by Hurricane Ian. The disruptions were extreme as kindergartners were housed in the library; first and second grades were placed in the cafeteria with a divider; fourth and fifth graders were in the Parish Hall; and middle schoolers were split between the Soy Hall and two gymnasium locker rooms.

Loseto said the students and faculty handled the transition well, adjusting and surmounting any difficulties, comforted in the knowledge that mitigation and repairs began within days. While everything was not perfect, Loseto said patience and understanding was shown in all.

She also gave a shout out to the many people who helped support the recovery effort through financial support which helped ease the burden on the school.

Father John Belmonte, SJ, Diocesan Superintendent of Catholic Education, was present for the morning assembly and was quick to acknowledge that Loseto herself led everyone through the storm and its aftermath.

“When we first talked about how we were going to open school, even though you didn’t have the main school building, a lot of good ideas came forth on how to do that, and certainly, most coming from Mrs. Loseto. So, I think we owe her a big applause,” Father Belmonte exclaimed as everyone joined in that acknowledgment.

Msgr. Dubois led a prayer service and blessed the repaired building. A ceremonial ribbon-cutting ceremony took place before everyone entered the building.

Ahead of the reopening, a team of faculty staff and parents moved all of the desks and other educational items from their temporary rooms to the main building. The upper grades were allowed in the building on Jan. 6, the 100th day since Hurricane Ian struck Venice.

The younger grades, including Nicole Semlow’s second grade class, got their first look at their refurbished classrooms after the morning assembly. They were impressed.

Lots of oohs and wows were exclaimed as they entered the classroom to the smell of fresh paint and newly laid flooring. The smiles were radiant as they returned to their own room, their own desks, a place they had come to love before Ian. Now the classroom, without any outside distractions, was a place of normalcy for the students.

The students, faculty, staff and parents of Epiphany Cathedral Catholic School started the first full week of school in 2023 with a celebration they won’t soon forget. It marked an opportunity to turn the page beyond the immediate aftermath and recovery of Hurricane Ian into what is a “normal” routine of a Catholic education, including study, fun and prayer.

If you would like to support Epiphany Cathedral Catholic School in their continuing recovery, please visit www.ecstigers.com.

St. Pete Diocese helps with Ian relief

Bishop Gregory Parkes, Bishop of the Diocese of St. Petersburg, generously made a donation from the faithful of the Diocese of St. Petersburg to the Diocese of Venice for its ongoing Hurricane Ian recovery.

Bishop Parkes met with Bishop Frank J. Dewane on Dec. 21, 2022, in Venice to personally present the check for $250,000. These funds were the result of a special collection following the hurricane.

The. St. Petersburg Bishop said the donation to the Diocese of Venice is directed to go where it is most needed to help rebuild following the devastating Sept. 28 hurricane.

More than 120 lives were lost in the counties of the Diocese of Venice with thousands losing their homes and livelihoods by storm surge, wind or flooding. Ian caused damage to 93 Diocesan properties. The damage was significant enough to 404 buildings to require major repairs which will be ongoing for many months to come.

Bishop Dewane said he was overwhelmed by the generosity and thoughtfulness of Bishop Parkes and the faithful of the Diocese of St. Petersburg.

“Hurricane Ian left a terrible path of destruction throughout Florida,” Bishop Dewane said. “It is a blessing for a fellow Florida Bishop to recognize the great need in our Diocese and is a testament to his compassion and caring for all our brothers and sisters in Christ who continue to suffer in the aftermath of this storm.”

In a Sept. 30 letter to all Parishes in the Diocese of St. Petersburg, Bishop Parkes wrote: “Our hearts are moved with compassion for all those who have suffered damage and destruction due to Hurricane Ian, especially our brothers and sisters in the Diocese of Venice.”

A portion of the money received during the special collection remained in the Diocese of St. Petersburg to help with its own recovery as numerous Diocesan facilities there were damaged.

However, Bishop Parkes stated: “This was a tough year for storms here in our area as well as our neighbors in the Diocese of Venice. Thanks to the generosity of our people, not only are we able to assist and help those who sustained damage here in our Diocese, but also to give hurricane relief to those who were affected in the Diocese of Venice. I thank the faithful of our Diocese for their generosity and we pray for all those that have been impacted by the hurricane and storms.”

If you would like to support the Diocese of Venice efforts to recover from Hurricane Ian, please visit https://dioceseofvenice.org/hurricaneian/.

X