Welcome Home! Mass returns to Sanibel

The Third Sunday of Advent, Gaudete Sunday or Joyful Sunday, was an appropriate time for the Catholic Mass to return to St. Isabel Parish on Sanibel, after it was forced to close due to damage from Hurricane Ian

Bishop Frank J. Dewane celebrated the Mass at 10 a.m., Dec. 11, 2022, expressing his prayers that all continue to recover with the grace of the Lord giving them strength. The Bishop added that since the hurricane passed, “Sanibel, and all in Southwest Florida, have been in my prayers. The church is a building, you are the Church, all of you. What is strong is the people who make up the Church.”

The barrier island and the Parish were overwhelmed by storm surge and wind damage from Hurricane Ian on Sept. 28, 2022. During the intervening 74 days it was impossible for the Mass to be celebrated, but due to perseverance as the mitigation and recovery proceeded, the “All Clear” was given to open.

Father Edward Martin, Pastor of St. Isabel, concelebrated and was outside of the church as the faithful arrived, greeting many with a heartfelt, “Welcome Home!”

Bishop Dewane cited the “desert experience” which is a theme of the readings for the day, recounting saints and prophets who lived in parched lands, with everyday things stripped away. This “desert experience” is being lived daily at the Parish and throughout the island as every building has some form of damage and is in different stages of recovery and/or repair while the landscape is only now slowly returning to its glorious splendor. Simple conveniences are sparse with little open and access to the barrier island still restricted.

“This bleak and dry period will end,” Bishop Dewane said. “Though we will all struggle for a time and our energy will be sapped, we have to allow ourselves to know that the Lord will have us bloom once again.  The joy, the energy; all of it will return. It’s an experience that is very Scriptural.”

It is during these difficult times, the Bishop added, that the faithful come to understand and appreciate a radical dependence on God, who gives us the good things in life; the very life we have.

“In that radical dependence, we pay attention, we might get angry, no doubt, but are we grateful for who is still with us and what we still have,” Bishop Dewane said. “Sometimes the healing that takes place following the desert experience takes time. It takes patience to have the desert bloom again around us. It’s only yourselves who can make that happen as instruments of the Lord. It is through the strength I see by your being here this morning as we journey through this desert experience and rely upon the Lord for His goodness and His Grace.”

The smiles on the faces were genuine as many were relieved to have the important faith component as part of the Sanibel recovery.

“It’s so wonderful to be back,” one woman told Father Martin after Mass. “Every part of the world at this latitude is a desert. We are the blooming desert. It was so moving to be here!”

While the parish property is mostly free of debris, evidence of the damage caused by Ian was clear once people entered the church. Mats cover a floor which was stripped bare to the concrete base. The drywall is cut at about the 4-foot level throughout. All the damaged pews were removed, and folding chairs were in their place.

That aesthetic didn’t matter to Phil and Laurie Jansen who were among the several dozen to attend the first Mass.

“We are so pleased to be back,” Laurie Jansen said. “It is a big first step in the recovery for everyone.”

The Jansens, and nearly everyone at the Mass on Dec. 11, had visited the Parish in the intervening weeks, monitoring the progress of the mitigation and cleanup, ever confident the Parish would reopen for Mass in a timely manner. “This is a great day. It means so much,” Laurie Jansen said.

While the number of people present for the first Mass was not large, a large number of islanders lost their homes and are living on the mainland or had not heard of the reopening. Father Martin is confident word will spread quickly and the people will come back.

Weekly updates have been sent to parishioners with photos to show the progress of the mitigation as well as prayers and words of encouragement as each person deals with their own recovery.

“Knowing we all face a long recovery ahead, it is important for our wonderful community to have a place of worship on the island once again,” a Dec. 6 announcement about the reopening stated.

Weekend Masses will continue while work at the Parish moves forward.

Progress made in Ian recovery

In the two months since the devastating winds and waters of Hurricane Ian struck the Diocese of Venice the monumental work to clean up and rebuild have been going strong.

Ian struck on Sept. 28, 2022, with winds up to 155 mph and storm surge measured at 15 feet swept across Sanibel and Fort Myers Beach. In all, the wide impacts of Ian caused damage at 30 Parishes and 10 Catholic schools, as well as at many other Diocesan properties.


Two of the most dramatic impacts in the Diocese were to St. Isabel Parish on Sanibel, as well as to Ascension Parish and the Poor Clare Monastery of San Damiano on Fort Myers Beach.

At St. Isabel, the Parish church and hall suffered severe storm surge damage and contractors hired by the Diocese have worked non-stop to mitigate against further damage since Oct. 25, the first day access was granted to the island for contractors after the causeway was rebuilt.

A visit to the Parish on Nov. 12 revealed a team of 30 contractors chiseling out the tile floor and cutting out moldy drywall in the church after already doing identical work in the neighboring hall.

The approach to the Parish on Sanibel-Captiva Road revealed a pile of debris at least six feet high and approximately 75 yards long, obstructing the street view of the Parish property. This pile of debris included the contents of the hall and church, including flooring, drywall, ceiling tiles, furniture, and other built-in materials which were all beyond salvage. In addition, there was the debris that was scattered across the property by the surge and wind, such as trees, branches, pieces ripped from the Parish buildings, as well as various detritus scattered by the wind and water from nearby properties.

One of the lead contractors on Sanibel said the damage was severe but could have been worse as the walls of the church and hall both withstood the force of the wind and rain. The roofs of both buildings held up well, although there was water intrusion through the soffits and impacts to the roof. The drying of the building interiors was completed by mid-November, with clearing out the remaining debris from the grounds, the final step yet to be completed.

A message to parishioners on Nov. 18 stated “The first steps have begun toward the restoration of our Parish… Each building faces substantial restoration.”

The cleanup at Ascension Parish and the Poor Clare monastery on Fort Myers Beach started sooner but the destruction there was more complete. Contractors have been on the property since two weeks after Ian’s landfall dealing with what was left over after the storm surge blasted through the church, hall, rectory, and monastery.

By Nov. 12, all of the main debris, including the contents of all the buildings, had been pushed to the curb. The first part of this monumental task was clearing access to the property as there was rubble from at least nine destroyed homes piled as high as 15 feet. The debris was so deep that crews used front-end loaders and bulldozers to do the heavy work. The result was that most of the vegetation was scraped away, leaving bare dirt and sand in most areas. The final part of this process was draining and clearing out two large ponds which were overflowing with various wreckage.

In each building, the work crews also cut out the drywall and floors. Fortunately, the walls of the church and monastery were made of concrete, meaning no structural damage occurred. Part of securing the property from any further damage included putting plywood over each of the blown-out windows and doors as air blowers were helping with the final drying out process.

A sign of hope on the property was that the larger trees survived, and the stripped leaves are slowly returning.

Before reconstruction can begin on Sanibel and Fort Myers Beach, additional contractors and supplies need to be accumulated and brought to the barrier islands.

Joe Rego, Diocesan Buildings Director, who is overseeing the response to Hurricane Ian, explained that the Diocese is actively working to hire contractors to repair damage to all properties, but that the extensive damage at St. Isabel and on Fort Myers Beach will require an unknown amount of time to complete. This is because the mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems in each building need to be assessed and either completely replaced or require extensive repairs after being exposed to storm surge inundation of salt water.

While it is hoped that reconstruction work can begin immediately, there is a shortage of workers and key supplies, such as drywall, plywood, flooring, and roofing materials, throughout the disaster zone.

“These issues are not unique to the barrier island properties, this is across the region,” Rego explained. “That part of the rebuilding effort is out of our control. The contractors have been up front in explaining the challenges and will expedite work wherever possible.”

All options are on the table, Rego added, meaning work at St. Isabel and on Fort Myers Beach might be done in phases to ensure some buildings are operational faster than others versus doing everything all at once.

“This is going to be a long process and we know we are not alone in facing these challenges,” he said. “We ask everyone’s patience as we work our way through this complicated process. In the end, we will build back better; it just might take a while.”

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

Nicole brushes by Diocese, minor damage

Winds from Hurricane Nicole peaked at 57 mph at Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport and gusts were reported higher through the region still picking up the pieces from Hurricane Ian 43 days earlier.

Those winds on Nov. 10, 2022, were enough to cause tarps at several sites to be ripped, allowing more water into buildings which were damaged during Ian on Sept. 28.

Incarnation Parish and Catholic school in Sarasota both had damage and water intrusion during Ian and the winds from Nicole penetrated the tarps. Parish and school staff reported new water intrusion and teams were quick to come out to mitigate any further damage.

This type of tarp damage and water intrusion also occurred at Epiphany Cathedral Catholic School in Venice, the rectory at St. Charles Borromeo Parish in Port Charlotte and the hall at Sacred Heart Parish in Punta Gorda. Each of those locations also had water intrusion during Ian with tarps that were compromised.

Diocese of Venice Buildings Manager Joe Rego said it was disappointing that the tarps failed, but thanks to quick action at the Parishes and schools, the additional damage was negligible and is unlikely to delay any scheduled repair work.

“It happens. We cannot control the weather,” Rego said. “This adds some more mitigation work we had not planned on at a time when we are starting to ramp up our work to get repairs done.”

At sites where damage to the buildings was extreme due to storm surge, such as Ascension Parish in Fort Myers Beach and St. Isabel Parish on Sanibel, the winds from Nicole added to the debris needed to be cleaned up.

One worker in Fort Myers Beach explained that there are many large piles of debris all over the island which meant even wind gusts of about 40 mph during the storm were enough to carry roof tiles, insulation, and other small items onto the grounds, adding to the cleanup process.

During Hurricane Ian damage was reported at more than 30 Parishes in the Diocese, 10 Catholic schools, as well as to other Diocese-owned and operated buildings. Teams have been doing mitigation work, such as putting tarps on roofs, removing damaged equipment and furniture and much more. Other work includes the removal of drywall where necessary.

“There is a lot of work that needs to be done,” Rego said.

Check back in the Nov. 25, 2022, e-edition of The Florida Catholic for the latest in the recovery and rebuilding in the Diocese following Hurricane Ian.

Sanibel church damaged as work to recover begins

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.

All Diocesan Catholic schools open

Bishop celebrates Mass in two hardest hit areas

Just three weeks after Hurricane Ian left destruction in its wake on Sept. 28, 2022, students at all 15 Diocese of Venice Catholic schools had returned to the classroom.

The coordination necessary to get each school opened in a safe and timely manner was the work of countless staff and volunteers who banded together, focused on a singular goal. The final four schools to reopen were in the hardest hit areas of Lee and Charlotte County – St. Charles Borromeo Catholic School in Port Charlotte, St. Andrew Catholic School in Cape Coral, and St. Francis Xavier Catholic School and Bishop Verot Catholic High School, both in Fort Myers.

Bishop Frank J. Dewane and Father John Belmonte, SJ, Diocesan Superintendent of Catholic Education, both complimented the outstanding work of the schools’ faculty and staff to get the schools open. While many schools had damage, some of the delays included a lack of electricity or drinkable water, as well as allowing time for families in some areas time to recover from the destruction of their homes. Another factor caused by the storm was the issue of space. Diocesan enrollment is at an all-time high at many schools, meaning where there was damage, a reimagining of the use of remaining space was necessary. With the first phase of hurricane recovery completed, all schools were open by Oct. 18.

At Bishop Verot Catholic High School, where awnings were torn away, portable classrooms damaged and bleachers twisted like pretzels, the return to school on Oct. 17 was met with joy and sorrow as many students and faculty had severe damage to homes, some losing everything to Ian’s wrath.

On the first day back, Bishop Dewane celebrated Mass for the school. The Bishop acknowledged everyone had been suffering through a difficult time in some way or another. This suffering varied greatly from destroyed homes or the total disruption of lives as whole neighborhoods and businesses became unrecognizable while there was an ongoing struggle to attain the basic necessities of food, power and drinkable water.

“We need to keep them in our prayers,” Bishop Dewane said. “To lift up these individuals to the Lord; so that He place His healing hands upon them.”

The Bishop called upon the Holy Spirit to enter into the people of Bishop Verot, particularly those who suffered the most from the hurricane. “Let us be united with them in the difficulty they face.”

Mass was also celebrated by Bishop Dewane on Oct. 19 for St. Charles Borromeo Catholic School in Port Charlotte, the day after their return to the classroom. The school had some roof and fencing damage, but the region had extreme impacts. Again, the Bishop spoke about the impacts of Hurricane Ian, stressing that the tragedy and difficulty many have faced is something that we can recover from and must not let it deter one’s faith and trust in God.

Schools helping schools

As impressive as it has been to get the schools back open so quickly, Bishop Dewane and Father Belmonte have also said the schools are reflecting their Christian core by their continued outreach into the community, helping not only their own school communities but others who have been in need.

Teams from nearly every Catholic school in Collier, Lee, Charlotte and Sarasota counties have helped families clear out debris from wrecked homes. Others have brought emergency supplies into neighborhoods.

Bishop Verot served as a temporary clearing house for getting donated emergency supplies to impacted families for the three Catholic schools in Lee County. More than two dozen faculty and staff lost homes, and more than 150 student families had similar destruction; so, the need was great. Donations from other Diocesan Catholic schools, as well as from Catholic schools from across Florida and beyond have flowed into the region. Since some families lost the entire contents of homes, the donations did not go to waste and were much appreciated.

Students from St. Ann Catholic School in Naples have been very busy. First, they held a food and emergency relief drive, which was combined with an effort by St. John the Evangelist Parish to benefit the St. Vincent de Paul Society Naples food pantry. The school then collected thousands in gift cards to give to needy families. Finally, the students sent handmade “Thank You” notes to local first responders, including the Naples Police Department, in gratitude for their work in protecting the community during and after the hurricane.

The girls’ basketball team from Cardinal Mooney Catholic High School in Sarasota took advantage of a day off to do service work at St. Michael Parish in Wauchula on Oct. 14. The players organized the food pantry and cleaned the property of debris. They are making a difference on, and off, the court!

Student and parents from St. Martha Catholic School in Sarasota used a day off from school on Oct. 17 to volunteer at All Faiths Food Bank, the regional supplier for food pantries in Sarasota and DeSoto counties.  The volunteers filled 160 boxes of food and 1,500 backpacks for local families and students.

At St. Joseph Catholic School in Bradenton, where the storm impacts were relatively less severe, Oct. 14, a day usually used for training for teachers, turned into an opportunity to volunteer at St. Paul Parish in Arcadia. The community was hard hit by the hurricane with severe wind damage and later river flooding. The faculty and staff volunteered at a Catholic Charities, Diocese of Venice, Inc. Disaster Response Distribution site helping to load vehicles with disaster relief.

These are just a few examples of the ongoing outreach and service being done by Diocesan Catholic schools in the wake of Hurricane Ian.

Small Boca Grande church stands tall

The people of Boca Grande on Gasparilla Island are no stranger to hurricanes, so when Hurricane Ian approached, they prepared and prayed for the best.

Father Jerome Carosella, Pastor of Our Lady of Mercy Parish in Boca Grande, stayed at the rectory during Hurricane Charley in 2004 and thought about staying this time until a deputy Sheriff told him to leave. So, Father Carosella 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.

He returned to Boca Grande on Sept. 30, 2022, two days after the storm struck, having to wait until the waters on the island receded enough to allow passage of trucks.

Unsure what he would find, Father was saddened to see widespread damage on the island but was relieved the church made it through Ian okay.

“Not too bad,” Father Carosella said, recalling that day. “Lots of roof damage and some water, but we were blessed.”

The interior of the small church, built in 1950, is reminiscent of Spanish missions erected in the 17th Century with interior artwork dating to as early as the 15th Century. Nothing inside suffered irreparable damage, even though half of the roof was peeled back. Fortunately, part of the old roof, which was damaged during Hurricane Charley, was left on the building, and provided enough protection to avoid catastrophe. The howling winds of the storm forced water around the old wood doors at the front and rear of the church, but the damage was limited.

The hurricane winds of Ian did shred part of the rectory roof, along with three storm shutters, and water poured into three rooms there. In addition, a section of the roof of the Boca Grande Pre-School, operated by Catholic Charities, Diocese of Venice, Inc., had similar roof and water intrusion, while the newly built Parish Hall had only superficial damage.

Father Carosella said friends and strangers were quick to assist in cleaning up the property, putting temporary tarps on the damaged roofs, mitigating against further damage from the water intrusion.

“It’s hard work, but it has had a good benefit; I’ve lost 7 pounds,” Father Carosella said.

Father has celebrated Mass every day since Sept. 30, and the congregation has slowly increased from two the first day to several dozen by Oct. 16 as access to the barrier island improved and coincided with the restoration of power and water on Oct. 11.

A wedding, scheduled for Oct. 15, was relocated to a “distant second-option,” St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. “She was baptized here 30 years ago, and it would have been beautiful. I guess the back-up had to do in a pinch.”

Carol and Laurence Hall, who have been on Boca Grande for 60 years, had damage to their home, but nothing that cannot be fixed. When the couple returned to the town after evacuating, Carol Hall said Our Lady of Mercy “was one of the first things we checked up on. Not too bad. So blessed that it wasn’t worse, and we were able to be here for Mass this morning.”

Father Carosella knows the Parish was fortunate as no storm surge inundated the island. Others had severe damage with some losing homes. 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 tarps or other obvious damage.

Father credits the lack of damage from Ian to the repairs done after Hurricane Charley and pointed out two olive trees which were trimmed way back not long before the storm.

“Who knows where they would have ended up or what damage that huge tree would have done. Unfortunately, we did lose the best mango tree on the island; it and its two companions are no more.”

While sorry to see the damage, Father Carosella pointed out that the leaves on the hibiscus were coming back fast, a sign that eventually, everything will come back, and the island paradise will be restored again.

Ascension Parish and monastery clean-up begins

With Hurricane Ian long gone, the cleanup is only just beginning on Fort Myers Beach at Ascension Parish and the Poor Clare Monastery of San Damiano.

Until Oct. 15, 2022, access to the property was by foot from Estero Boulevard, the main road which passes in front of the property. A parishioner who lives on Fort Myers Beach was able to clear a path onto the property, pushing debris and sand into piles, similar to how plows move snow.

This access will allow Diocesan contractors to come in and clear the larger debris, such as the wrecked contents of the Parish church, Parish Hall, rectory, and sheds, as well as the monastery offices, garages, and Chapel.

The debris removal includes nine homes, and their contents, that ended up on the property due to storm surge. Some of the debris lays scattered next to the church, in the driveway and in front of the monastery, as well as inside the 8-foot walls of the monastery compound.

Bishop Frank J. Dewane remarked on the plight of the priests and nuns on Fort Myers Beach who were stranded for three days before they were rescued.

“The Sisters and Father (William) Adams went through a harrowing time with Hurricane Ian and are now dealing with its aftermath, like so many in Southwest Florida and in the Diocese of Venice,” Bishop Dewane said.  “In the midst of total destruction, the Sisters are already worrying about how to get their next monthly shipment of hosts out! Their faith comes first, and they are thankful to God for their safety.”

Bishop Dewane went on to state that the safety and well-being of all in Southwest Florida is the first concern of the Diocese, and to address this issue Catholic Charities, Diocese of Venice, Inc. has established many Points of Distribution (PODS) throughout the region “to assist with basic human needs like food and water. The Diocese is working to assess the possibilities of repairing and rebuilding churches and schools, and we continue to ask for your prayers for all who have lost so much.”

Father Adams, Pastor of the Ascension Parish, first returned to the property on Oct. 10. Although he had been there for 72 hours following the destruction brought by Ian, the return was heartbreaking. He spoke about the property on Oct. 14.

“Everything is gone,” Father Adams said. “Seeing the destruction in person is nothing like seeing it on TV or in pictures. The Diocese had people out inspecting the damage… and my thought is that if they can get the Parish Hall fixed – that is the original church – we can have Mass for whoever is left on the island. That will be quicker to fix than the church because everything in the church needs to be repaired and replaced. We are starting from scratch.”

Father Adams said the monastery ground floor is gutted, and the Chapel is a mess. “But the building is three stories and sturdy. I know because when the surge breached the walls the building didn’t move and everything above the surge is fine. So as soon as we have power, we will be back.”

Abbess Sister Mary Frances and the three other nuns have also returned to the property several times as well to salvage a few personal items, do some minor cleaning and take inventory of what needs to be replaced.

“Everyone is being so helpful but there is only so much we can do right now,” Sister Mary Frances said on Oct. 15. “We’ll pick up the pieces.”

Ever with a positive outlook, Sister said, the nuns “want to go back. We have to go back and clean it up and go on… We will take it one day at a time. It’ll be okay.”

Members of the Knights of Columbus trekked to the property on Oct. 19 to retrieve missing monastery items from under some of the debris before the heavy equipment arrives. This included a large statue of Mary which stayed in place but was surrounded by several feet of metal, wood, glass, and other items from two homes.

Father Adams is currently staying at his sister’s home in Lee County, while Parochial Vicar Father Grzegorz Klich is staying at St. Charles Borromeo Parish in Port Charlotte. The Poor Clare nuns are temporarily staying at a home in Ave Maria and are looking for a place to stay closer to their monastery to save time as they go back each day to clean up a little bit more.

With the prayers of St. Francis and St. Clare of Assisi, and to the Blessed Virgin Mary and Her Son, Jesus Christ, there is no doubt the Parish and monastery will return to their former glory as a beacon of faith for an island community that is working to rise from the ruins of destruction wrought by Hurricane Ian.

A Go Fund Me page has been set up on behalf of the Poor Clare Nuns on Fort Myers Beach.

To read the previous story about Ascension Parish and the Poor Clare Nuns, please visit www.dioceseofvenice.org/news.

More stories from Hurricane Ian

Making progress

Just a few days after the Myakka River receded from record flooding, work crews were at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Retreat Center in Venice doing mitigation in each of the buildings. By Saturday, Oct. 15, 2022, just days after the waters receded enough to allow access to the property, crews had emptied the contents of each of the Villas and were working on removing the flooring in the St. Joseph Chapel.

During the river flooding after Hurricane Ian, at least 18 inches or more of river water entered each building. Because the waters remained high for more than a week after the buildings were breeched, more damage occurred. In fact, the cleanup crews were forced to cut about four feet of dry wall in the Chapel as the water had made the bottom parts unsalvageable.

While OLPH is closed for repairs, some of the activities and retreats have been moved to new locations. For a complete list and more updates, please visit www.olph-retreat.org.

Cross straightened

The cross on the roof of St. Cecilia Parish church in Fort Myers was knocked askew and left dangling by the fierce winds of Hurricane Ian on Sept. 28, 2022. On Oct. 14, a large cherry-picker lifted workers up to straighten the cross and make it stand tall once again. The church property had other minor damage, but the restoration of the cross was a symbol of progress toward a full recovery not only for the Parish but for the entire Fort Myers community which suffered great losses during the hurricane.


Roof sealed

A long strip of the high-pitched roof of St. Columbkille Parish in Fort Myers was peeled off during Hurricane Ian on Sept. 28, 2022. This and other roof damage caused by the winds allowed water to enter into the church, causing extensive damage in the narthex, chapel and main sanctuary. Contractors for the Diocese were able to place sealing tarps over the holes in the roof by Oct. 10 which will be in place until repairs can take place preventing any further damage.


Pine Island Parish open for Mass

Daily Mass returned on Oct. 17, 2022, to Our Lady of Miraculous Medal Parish in Bokeelia, Pine Island, an area hard hit by Hurricane Ian. Mass is being celebrated although there is still no power, internet or phones at the church. Daily Mass is at 8:30 a.m., and the weekend schedule (4 p.m. Saturday, and 8:30 and 10:30 a.m. Sunday) remains the same. The buildings on the property suffered damage, with major water into the Parish Hall and some into the church. Many trees were knocked down and there was water intrusion in the church and Parish Hall, but otherwise the church had no damage from storm surge which impacted the southern section of the island. Parish staff is posting updates as needed, please visit http://www.miraculousmedalch.org/.

Knights feed 1,000

Members of the Knights of Columbus from multiple Councils converged on Jesus the Worker Parish in Fort Myers Sunday, Oct. 16, 2022, to host a cookout for the Fort Myers community which was hard hit by Hurricane Ian. Many parishioners lost homes while others lost work. The Knights grilled up more than 1,000 hamburgers and hot dogs so everyone had a hearty meal. Whatever food that was leftover was sent home with the parishioners.

The Knights were primarily from Collier County, including from Parishes such as Ave Maria, St. William, St. Agnes, St. John the Evangelist and St. Elizabeth Seton as well as others representing the Knights Florida State Council. Father Patrick O’Connor, Oblates of St. Frances de Sales, said the food was greatly appreciated by the many families at this Spanish-speaking Parish. Many were hit doubly hard by the storm with home damage and those in the service industry being thrown out of work for an unknown length of time.

Community rallies after Ian brings winds then flooding

DeSoto County took a double hit from Hurricane Ian. First, the hurricane brought battering winds that tore roofs off and caused a great deal of damage causing many to lose their homes and business. Then, two days later, the Peace River, normally a tranquil strip of water that meanders through the heart of the county, overspilled its banks and kept rising to an all-time record crest. The flood waters rose so fast that many fled with what was on their back.

St. Paul Parish in Arcadia was not immune to the wind damage, suffering losses of the offices, classrooms and hall and leaks in the church. “Blessed be God we are alive!” said Father Luis Pacheco, St. Paul Administrator. “Despite the devastation that we all have encountered with Hurricane Ian, some more than others, we have a lot to be grateful for. It could have been much worse.”

St. Paul has become the epicenter of the recovery effort for the region with Catholic Charities, Diocese of Venice, Inc., setting up a Disaster Response site to give out, food, water, tarps, blankets, and cleaning supplies. Many other organizations have rallied at the property to offer clothing, bedding, diapers, medical check-ups and free hot meals. Among the supporting organizations were several from Diocesan Parishes, such as the Emmaus group from St. Joseph the Worker Parish in LaBelle, or a team from Our Lady of Grace in Avon Park, seminarians from St. Vincent de Paul Regional Seminary in Boynton Beach, and many more.

“We will continue to strive and come out stronger,” Father Pacheco said. “I hope this hurricane has centered us and given us a new perspective in life. It is all about our relationship with God and with one another.”

Total devastation – Parish Church and Monastery on Fort Myers Beach a shambles

“We were blessed. God took care of us.”

This is what Sister Mary Frances of Jesus Fortin, Franciscan Poor Clare Abbess of the San Damiano Monastery on Fort Myers Beach said a week after Hurricane Ian left ruin in its wake.

The storm surge toppled the 8-foot monastery walls, blasted through Ascension Parish Church, Parish Hall and rectory, and left those seeking shelter feeling blessed to be alive, in shock at what they witnessed, and saddened by the loss of lives of their neighbors and friends.

The experience of the four Poor Clare nuns and two Parish priests was harrowing, with images that will stay in their minds forever. They are inspiring in their determination as they look forward to rebuilding.

“God is good,” Sister Mary Frances said. This resilience comes from the life the Poor Clares choose to live. They are cloistered, a secluded life to foster intense prayer. The nuns do not minister outside their residence but dedicate their lives to contemplation and prayer for others.

“We will rebuild and be back,” Sister Mary Frances said. “Every day we realize how fortunate we are. We have been on Fort Myers Beach since 1988 and we are anxious to, ideally, stay on the property once power and water are restored and be there during the reconstruction. We will go on.”

That strength in the Holy Spirit is unwavering and amazing considering they watched the angry waters of the Gulf of Mexico come 8-10 feet higher than ever before as their three-story monastery became a lonely island in the middle of a maelstrom.

Father Adams spoke with Bishop Frank J. Dewane shortly after the worst of the storm passed to explain the damage and the plan for everyone to evacuate. Unfortunately, cell service failed and getting off the island became impossible for the group. Therefore, having survived that traumatic experience, it took until Saturday, Oct. 1, 72 hours after the storm, before they were able to get off the now-decimated Fort Myers Beach.

Ian approaches

When Hurricane Ian formed and threatened Fort Myers Beach, there was a call for an evacuation, but as with the big hurricanes in the past, Charley (2004) and Irma (2017), everyone at Ascension huddled on the second floor of the monastery. Present were Ascension Pastor Father William Adams, Parochial Vicar Grzegorz Klich, and the Poor Clares, Abbess Sister Mary Frances, Sister Maria Marra Miltitante Rosales, Sister Maria Ella de Nuestra Senora del Pilar Alindogan, and Sister Maria Imelda de Nuestra Senora de la Esperanza Agrabante.

During the storm, the nuns continually prayed the rosary, and everyone was in high spirits, comforted in the knowledge that knowledge that the wall had never breached, a generator with enough fuel to operate for four weeks, and enough food for everyone to last a long time.

It was about 11 a.m. when the water started flowing into the parking lot and rising quickly. That was normal in comparison to other hurricanes, but what was strange was when debris started flowing through the parking lot. That was new, but they knew they were “safe.”

“You just didn’t believe the water could ever get that high,” Sister Mary Frances said. “During Charley and Irma the water only ever came up to our grass.”

As the wind whipped outside, the normally tranquil Gulf of Mexico churned and boiled murky water, carrying debris of all sorts and leaving behind total devastation hidden by blinding rain and fierce winds, as the storm surge rose.

“We saw everything floating, including this big piece of wood; it went into the garage, and it didn’t ever come out. We then we realized that the garage was gone,” Sister Mary Frances said. “To see what was happening, you just couldn’t comprehend. There was no reference to match what we were seeing.”

Relentlessly, the surge did top, then breach, the 8-foot monastery walls, allowing a torrent of water to enter the ground floor and also knock out the generator.

“That’s when it got scary,” Father Adams explained. “Without the generator and the water continuing to rise, we were stuck. We didn’t want to go to the top floor, just in case the roof blew off. So we went to the concrete stairway, a little sheltered from the wind and rain, and just watched until the water topped out inches from the second floor.”

The water crested and stayed high for what seemed like hours, but it was only about 30 minutes before it began slowly receding starting about 4 p.m., five hours after the first water entered the parking lot. The storm was not over, but the worst had passed and they prayed and thanked God for their safety and prayed for everyone who continued to suffer from Ian’s wrath.

They were safe, but they had been through a traumatizing experience. “It was hard to grasp what we went through,” Sister said.

What the next day brought

When the sun rose on Thursday, Sept. 29, the storm had passed, so the two priests and four nuns ventured out to survey the damage on what was a crystal-clear day. What they found was incomprehensible.

Alligators and snakes were roaming in the water and across the property and in the parking lot outside of the monastery walls were the remains of at least four complete houses piled 15-feet high. The ground floor, which included the garage, offices, apartments for visiting priests, and the Chapel, were all a mess with everything tossed into a jumble and covered in a slimy muck.

In the Chapel, that is a replica of the one built by St. Francis of Assisi in Italy, the surge tossed the organ upside-down and the altar on its side with other contents pushed everywhere. Amazingly, the statue of St. Francis of Assisi floated across the chapel and wedged itself, undamaged, against the gate which separates the sisters from the public. In addition, the credence table was found in its usual spot and all the stained glass, which included etched Stations of the Cross, was unharmed. In front of the monastery the large statue of St. Clare of Assisi, with the inscription above “I Will Always Protect You,” was surrounded by a pile of debris from four houses but was also undamaged.

“Just amazing power,” Sister Mary Frances said. “It was unrecognizable. The vestments in the Parish church were wrapped around the railing and in the trees. Everything in my office was gone. I had to peel a contact list that was plastered to the wall because I needed the phone numbers of people to let them know we were okay.”

One of the ways the Poor Clare nuns earn money is by making communion hosts for Parishes across the state, so Sister Mary Frances was upset because the hosts that were set to be mailed on Sept. 30 were scattered into mush.

“Sister Pilar had to call the Parishes to say that the October delivery will not be made,” Sister Mary Frances said. “We will start again, and I think we can make the November delivery. We will take it day by day.”

Before reaching the monastery, the water first blasted through the Parish church, pushing in the front doors, tossing aside pews like matchsticks and flowing over the altar, then blowing out stained-glass windows, Father Adams explained.

“The only thing recognizable were the statues of St. Joseph and Our Lady of Guadalupe. Everything else was gone,” Father explained. “One of my favorite albs was high up in a tree. And in the rectory, everything is destroyed and ruined. The same with the Parish Hall.”

The ground was covered in inches of muck, a combination of sand, mud and debris that had a concrete-like look to it but was very slippery. All the vehicles were destroyed. They were stranded.

“We went out to the beach and found golf clubs strewn everywhere,” Sister Mary Frances explained. “We used those to shoo away the snakes and to lean on as we walked around. What was left of a house was across Estero Boulevard and there were empty slabs where other houses once stood. Everything was so bad.”

Father Adams has been at Ascension Parish since 2000 and could never see the Gulf from the church because homes and vegetation blocked the view, until the day after Ian. “I have an unobstructed view of the Gulf for the first time, but at what cost? The loss is incredible. One of the daily Mass attendees in the Chapel was found in the bay not far from the Chapel. I called the daughter in Cape Coral. Many of the parishioners are dead. There are four walls of the church, the hall, the rectory and the monastery, but nothing is recognizable. It might be repairable, but we lost everything.”

In the two days following the storm, the priests and nuns cleaned up and salvaged what they could from the muck and debris. They saw many first responders, and even waved to helicopter pilots as they flew overhead, but inexplicably no one stopped.

“That was hard,” Father Adams said. “I guess they didn’t think we needed help, or they were rushing to help people in more distress.”

Unsure what to do, they remained in the monastery awaiting a miracle.

Help from the east coast heroes

That miracle came in the name of Joseph Garagozzo and Alex Carrasco, from the Church of the Nativity in Hollywood, Fla.

Garagozzo explained why he went to Fort Myers Beach, “Thursday afternoon, the 29th, the nuns from the Monastery came to my mind and I felt that I needed to go see them. I came out of my office and I told my wife. She said if you feel that, then you need to do it.”

Through the years, Garagozzo visited and attended Mass in the monastery chapel when he vacationed on Fort Myers Beach. Believing the monastery survived the storm unscathed, he and Carrasco decided to leave for Fort Myers beach early on Oct. 1 to bring them gasoline for their generator and water, and then attend 8 a.m. Mass and then help clean up where they could.

“We knew there might be a possibility we would be turned away at a checkpoint, so we decided to wear our Church of the Nativity Men’s Club shirts and bring a bulletin and everything I could print out on the monastery, including a picture of the nuns,” Garagozzo explained.

They left Hollywood at 6 a.m. and tried to enter Fort Myers Beach from the south end near Bonita Springs, but that bridge had been compromised so the only other option was to cross at the northern Matanzas bridge.

“We waited in a car line and there we saw car after car make U-turns in front of us, having been turned away by the deputies not allowing people to go in,” Garagozzo said. “When we got to the car just before us we both prayed to the Blessed Mother. The car just before us was also turned away.

I drove up and told the deputy, ‘We are here from Nativity church, and we were sent to see the nuns at the monastery. They are still there.’”

The deputy did not understand and first said no but decided to call over a supervisor. The information was repeated and Garagozzo showed the paperwork from the monastery.

“There was a long pause that ‘seemed forever’ and he said, ‘Go ahead!’ He let us through,” Garagozzo said. “As we drove over the bridge, we knew that it was a divine intervention and both of us thanked God for that. But it did not take long to realize that things were really bad on the island. We seemed to be the only people in a truck that weren’t police or rescue workers.”


As they headed south on Estero Boulevard, the beautiful community Garagozzo was familiar with was unrecognizable. What they saw were a few big backhoes plowing the sand, like snow, to clear a path. The duo stayed quiet.

“It was a sunny day with not a cloud in the sky and we didn’t hear one generator running. The quietness was eerie. We could see that water caused mass destruction, like a tsunami,” Garagozzo said.

When they arrived at the Ascension Parish and monastery property, they were in shock at what they saw. Debris everywhere, the doors of the church gone, nothing moving.

“This was a place that I came to many times with my family as we vacationed there once or twice a year,” Garagozzo said. “This is where I prayed to God and hoped that the nuns did leave.”

The pair parked in the street because there was no way to get in and after some effort forged a path onto the property before seeing a few windows open on the third floor of the monastery.

“We yelled ‘Hello!’ The nuns popped their heads out and yelled ‘Hello!’ back,” he explained. Father Adams and Klich came down to greet them and asked who sent them. They explained that they were from a Parish in Hollywood but no one sent them. The priests and sisters thought they were firefighters. After hearing their harrowing story of survival, Garagozzo and Carrasco tried to make a plan for getting the priests and sisters off the island.

Since their pickup truck could not carry eight people, they decided to take Father Adams to his sister’s house on the mainland and then he got help from parishioners at St. John XXIII Parish in Fort Myers to return to the island and retrieve the Poor Clares.

Father Adams returned to Fort Myers Beach and was initially denied entry but told the deputy that he was going to save some religious nuns and that they would have to run him down if they wanted to stop him. Of course, they didn’t, and the Poor Clares were brought to the home of the Stahlman family in Naples, longtime supporters of the nuns.

From there, the Stahlman family connected the nuns with a friend who offered a winter home in Ave Maria for their use until the end of the year.

Sister Mary Francis and Father Adams called the pair heroes for what they did, but Garagozzo said anyone would have done the same thing.

“All kinds of lovely people have been trying to help us,” Sister Mary Frances said. “It has been so heartwarming and meaningful. We left with the clothes on our backs and then they took us shopping to replace some of the things we lost.”

A return visit

It wasn’t until Oct. 10, 12 days after Hurricane Ian tore through their peaceful island home, that Father Adams and the Poor Clare nuns could return to the property.

“We walked around and tried to find personal items, and things we needed but there is nothing there,” Father Adams explained. “It’s all destroyed. The mold is everywhere. Everything is just falling apart. Nothing can prepare you. We were here during and after Ian, but it is worse now. The totality of the destruction is devastating; it’s surreal.”

But as Sister Mary Frances said, “We are going to rebuild. That is where God placed us, and it is where we will stay.”

Retreat Center dries out from Ian

For more than a quarter century Our Lady of Perpetual Help Retreat Center in Venice and the meandering waters of the Myakka River existed in harmony. That symbiotic relationship was upturned when Hurricane Ian brought high winds, epic rains, and the Myakka River to the door.

The result is that the waters rose far above record levels and water entered every building on the property. All is not lost, as all buildings are intact, and the property had full power by Oct. 10. While a great deal of work is required to get the retreat center fully functioning, efforts have already begun to make that happen.

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 waters had risen to cover the entire property. The waters were as high as they had ever been in comparison to all previous flooding events since OLPH was founded in 1988. Father noted 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 getting into 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.

“We are still evaluating the damage,” Father Yavarone said on Oct. 11. “We had just completely replaced the flooring in every building and were doing other upgrades. That is all lost. But we will be back. Repairs will take place and OLPH will reopen as soon as possible.”

Denise Riley, OLPH Business Manager, said it was hard to see the mold and the muck from the river covering everything that was green on the property. Trees fell and were being cleared as soon as the property was accessible, but the water damage will take time to fix.

“The Diocese is helping us get crews in here to dry out everything and start that process of coming back,” Riley said. “There are files that were lost and things that are sad to see damaged, but you have to go on.”

Diocesan Director of Building and Construction Joe Rego said it was difficult to stay away from the retreat center until the waters receded.

“We knew damage was taking place but the site was inaccessible for more than a week. We got out there as soon as the road opened,” Rego said. “There is extensive damage to the infrastructure that needs to be repaired or replaced. The length of time from when the water first came into the buildings and the inability to access the property made things worse. We have teams of people who are working to get everything cleaned up and then we can start the repairs.”

The cleanup is going to take time as the waters rose so high that there are watermarks on every building, every wall, every piece of furniture, and even on the trees and bushes. A black sludge, the stirred-up remnants of the swollen Myakka River, covered everything from the ground level up. The standing water, mold and rotting vegetation left behind by the storm and river created a terrible smell that brought a gloom to the property.

In a message posted on the OLPH website on Oct. 2, Father Yavarone shared the story of St. Margaret D’Youville, who worked tirelessly to build a hospital to care for the sick only to have it burn to the ground shortly after it was completed.

Just as St. Margaret, the people who have a connection to OLPH may wonder “Why would God want us to spend so much time and effort beautifying the grounds and the interior of the buildings if the mother of all hurricanes was on its way? Or were such efforts merely our ideas and not God’s will?” Father wrote. “How easily we forget that we are at the hands of a provident God who kept us safe in the midst of one of the many tragedies that must befall the world.”

Father wrote those words before the water receded and while he was staying at San Pedro Parish in North Port, where hundreds of homes were flooded and many stranded by the same flood waters that brought devastation to the retreat center. He noted that as he wrote his message, he looked out the window, witnessing hundreds of families coming to be helped by Catholic Charities, FEMA, and others. “It will be a busy Sunday for our priests and lay people as we try to be the hands and hearts of our provident God. His Grace will not be lacking.”

God’s grace is not lacking, as crews cleared away debris, the first important step in the recovery process. While the property is still covered in muck, bald eagles, osprey, herons, ibis, and alligators were seen in abundance.

Just as nature has rebounded quickly, so too will the retreat center. OLPH will return to its previously glory, in harmony with the Myakka River once again.