Ongoing stories of recovery

Progress being made in removing debris on Fort Myers Beach

Debris removal at Ascension Parish and the San Damiano Monastery of Saint Clare on Fort Myers Beach is well underway. The property was inundated with more than 12 feet of storm surge from Hurricane Ian on Sept. 28, 2022.

Contractors are working hard to mitigate any further damage by removing the large debris from the interior of the church, rectory, Parish Hall, and monastery which were all wrecked. Plywood was placed over each broken window while destroyed equipment, furniture and pews were removed, clearing the way so mitigation from further damage could take place. This mitigation includes drying out each building.

The property has no power or running water, so contractors brought their own generators to run some equipment. Additionally, crews are actively removing the remains of nine houses which littered the property after being pushed by the surge. The clearing of this debris will allow better access to the property which has been limited.

In addition, Knights of Columbus disaster response members from several Diocesan Councils, including from Ave Maria where the Poor Clare nuns are temporarily residing, have been assisting in retrieving and salvaging religious and personal items from the debris of each of the buildings. Items that could be saved but cannot remain on the property during the rebuilding process were taken to secure locations to be cleaned and stored before they are returned to the Parish and monastery at a later date.

To learn more about the plight of the priests and Poor Clare Nuns who were in the monastery during the hurricane, please read the previously published articles at

https://dioceseofvenice.org/ascension-parish-and-monastery-clean-up-begins or https://dioceseofvenice.org/total-devastation-parish-church-and-monastery-on-fort-myers-beach-a-shambles

Therapy dogs visit Diocesan Catholic schools in Lee County

Furry friends are making special visits to the three Diocese of Venice Catholic Schools in Lee County following Hurricane Ian. The therapy dogs are visiting St. Andrew Catholic School in Cape Coral, St. Francis Xavier Catholic School in Fort Myers, as well as Bishop Verot Catholic High School, also in Fort Myers.

The first visit was to Bishop Verot on Oct. 19, 2022, where the dogs were brought to the school courtyard where students were able to pet and hug the dogs to their hearts content. These dogs also visited the elementary schools and are returning several days a week to ensure each student has time with the dogs.

These therapy dogs are specially trained to be around large groups of people and are a good way for the students to have smiles and laughter even though dozens of students and staff lost homes or had significant damage during the hurricane. One teacher at Bishop Verot said everyone in the school suffered some sort of emotional trauma from the hurricane and having the therapy dogs visit was a time to allow everyone to forget, even for a moment, what they have been enduring during the past month.

Students help to package meals

Members of the St. John Neumann Catholic High School Key Club joined students from other Naples-area schools to package 50,000 meals with the group Meals of Hope on Oct. 22, 2022. Typically, these packaged meals would be sent off to needy countries around the world, but because of the impact of Hurricane Ian, the food will remain in Collier County to help victims of the hurricane. The Key Club at Neumann is a service club which participates in a variety of projects helping people in need throughout the community.

 

 

Newest disaster relief site now open

Catholic Charities, Diocese of Venice, Inc. is now providing water, ready-to-eat meals, baby items, hygiene kits, tarps, and other essential supplies for distribution in the parking lot behind the Ministry Center of St. Charles Borromeo Parish, 21505 Augusta Ave., Port Charlotte. The disaster distribution point opened on Oct. 19, 2022, and is open 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., Monday to Saturday, in the parking lot behind the Parish school, at Augusta Avenue and Gates Avenue. Catholic Charities is currently operating six disaster distribution sites, down from a peak of 10 in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Ian. The locations change as the needs of the community and the response transitions to more of a recovery mode in different areas.

If you need help

Please visit www.catholiccharitiesdov.org. There you will find an updated list of disaster distribution points for supplies. This list is updated at the end of each day and will change often as the focus of the recovery shifts and the different needs are understood.

How to Help

If you would like to support 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.

Volunteering

If you are interested in volunteering, please visit www.catholiccharitiesdov.org to find a list of disaster distribution points where volunteers are needed for loading vehicles, sorting supplies and additional assistance.

Additional help

The Diocese will hold a special second collection for Hurricane Ian relief on the weekend of Oct. 22-23 in all Parishes. Also, please contact your local Parish to learn about collection drives for hurricane supplies.

The Diocese of Venice extends its thanks to everyone for their continued prayers and outpouring of support as the recovery from Hurricane Ian continues.

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.

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.

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.”

Unrecognizable

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.”

Catholic Charities continues rendering assistance

“It’s not so bad. We have each other.”

CCUSA CEO presents check to help efforts

During the first two weeks of the coordinated response to Hurricane Ian disaster relief, Catholic Charities, Diocese of Venice, Inc., has helped more than 50,000 people with supplies of water, food, tarps, blankets and much more.

This outreach has been made possible by the direction of CEO Eddie Gloria, his team, volunteers and the guidance of Bishop Frank J. Dewane.

Disaster response sites have been set up in the hardest hit areas, particularly where local government help may have been lacking. At least 10 sites have been operating since the first days after Ian struck on Sept. 28, 2022.

As the true scope of the disaster revealed itself, and the needs of the community changed, Catholic Charities has been flexible in meeting the needs on the ground as the response is slowly transitioning from meeting urgent needs to disaster management – helping people with long-term needs.

Gloria credited Bishop Dewane and the overarching support of Catholic Charities USA, which has helped coordinate the disaster response with technical support and a high level of experience in these situations with staff who have dedicated their time to helping in many ways.

Catholic Charities USA President and CEO, Sister Donna Markham, OP, visited the Diocese of Venice on Oct. 12, 2022, to get an update on how the response is progressing.

Sister Donna met with Gloria and his team as well as with Bishop Dewane to discuss what is coming in the next week and months as the region recovers from Ian. She also offered words of encouragement to the Catholic Charities staff who were directly impacted by the hurricane.

In a ceremony at the Catholic Center in Venice, Sister Donna said disasters such as Ian strike different places at different times.

“Now it is your turn,” Sister said. “We are here with the enormous generosity of a lot of people, who have helped us by sending in donations (through the CCUSA website). We take every single dollar from our donors and ensure they will go directly to the people affected by a disaster. In this case, in what I hope will be more to come, is an initial check for humanitarian relief in the amount of $500,000.”

A roar of approval and applause accompanied this pronouncement as Gloria accepted the check.

Bishop Dewane expressed his gratitude for Sister Donna’s presence and for the check noting that it will go a long way to helping to meet the needs of the community.

At sites across the region, Catholic Charities has been receiving tractor trailers full of water, food, tarps, blankets and every type of item imaginable. When the items arrive, teams of people help unload and then distribute the items by loading vehicles for grateful families.

Arcadia was a site of total devastation. Many homes were damaged or destroyed by the fierce winds of Ian, but it was the flooding from the Peace River, which lazily flows through the western portion of the area that brought more destruction. The river rose to record levels and cut the city in half, that did most of the destruction.

“My house flooded,” said Sam Jenkins of Arcadia at the Catholic Charities disaster response site at St. Paul Parish on Oct. 8. “I had five minutes to leave and even then, I couldn’t get my car out fast enough, it stalled and is gone. Everything is gone.”

Jenkins arrived at the Parish by foot, having slept at a friend’s house the previous night and hoping to hear from a family member in Georgia to send him the money needed to get out of the area.

The town was cut off by the flood waters from the west, north and south, and more than a week after the storm, access was still limited.

This is why the front parking lot of the Parish church, which sits on State Road 70, the main east-west road through the rural city, was a hive of activity as churches of all denominations brought clothing and emergency supplies for people to choose from.

Desperate parents, unsure where they would sleep that night, or in the future, selected clothing as the children chose donated toys and games or tried on new or gently used shoes and sneakers. Others had everything they owned crammed into vehicles.

Isabella Perez carefully went through the clothes and other items, picking a few shirts and pants for her three children. Her home flooded and the family of five was staying at a home with two other families.

“It is hard,” Perez said. “The wind ripped our trailer apart, so we fled. When we tried to go back, it was completely underwater. I cried for 10 minutes while my children were given ice cream by some nice people at the edge of the river, about a half-mile from our home. Then we got back in the car and drove around. It is so wonderful that people have donated things for us to choose from. We are all okay and that is what matters. I know many who lost more, others who were hurt. It’s not so bad. We have each other.”

Also in the St. Paul parking lot was a team from the Anna Maria Oyster Bar, which brought 1,000 sandwiches and another group set up a barbecue smoker. Meanwhile, the Heart to Heart International Disaster Response truck was there to offer medical exams, free tetanus shots, as well as fillings prescriptions and providing mental wellness counseling.

On the back side of the Parish church is the Catholic Charities disaster distribution site, which includes water, food, sunscreen, batteries, blankets, tarps, cleaning supplies and more. Trucks from all over resupply the site each day as the demand continues.

“This is just the beginning here,” said Sister Martha Flores, M.H.M.L., the Parish Director of Religious Education who was overseeing the work and directing volunteers for different tasks. “So many people lost homes. If you didn’t lose your home and you worked in farming, you probably lost your job. There are a lot of people hurting here.”

Catholic Charities has Parish distribution points at St. Katharine Drexel in Cape Coral, Jesus the Worker in Fort Myers, San Pedro in North Port, St. Michael in Wauchula, and St. Leo Parish in Bonita Springs.

Gloria said having sites at these Parishes allows the community to come to a central point they trust, and the flexibility of Catholic Charities allows the organization to address needs on a moment’s notice. This means that as areas got drinkable water and power back, the needs changed from emergency rations and water to food that can be cooked, as well as cleaning supplies and diapers.

“If there is a need and we don’t have something there, we reach out to our disaster response partners to find a solution,” Gloria said.

As Gloria noted earlier, the sites will transition into disaster recovery centers where support staff will directly help families address pressing needs more efficiently.

If you are in need

Please visit www.catholiccharitiesdov.org. There you will find an updated list of distribution points for supplies. This list is updated at the end of each day and will change often as the focus of the recovery shifts and the different needs are understood.

Monetary donations

For those interested in making a 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.

Volunteering, donating supplies

For those interested in volunteering or if you wish to bring needed supplies (food, water, diapers, new clothing/footwear for children and adults), you can go to Catholic Charities distributions points (www.catholiccharitiesdov.org). If you are driving into the hardest hit areas, gasoline supplies remain limited. Also, contact your local Parish to learn if a specific donation drive is taking place.

 

The Diocese of Venice extends its thanks to everyone for their continued prayers and outpouring of support as the recovery from Hurricane Ian continues.

Schools continue to rebound from Ian

The welcoming back of students and faculty at Epiphany Cathedral Catholic School on Oct. 10, 2022, was the result of the hard work of many. The joy everyone felt to gather for morning prayer was electric.

The school was ravaged by Hurricane Ian on Sept. 28 when a large portion of the roof ripped off, allowing water to pour into classrooms. Faculty, families, volunteers and contractors have worked hard since the storm to clean up the mess and ensure the school was safe to open.

Father John Belmonte, SJ, Superintendent of Catholic Education, said the repairs will take time, but a creative use of the available space allowed everyone to return to the classroom, even if it wasn’t in the same exact room as before the hurricane.

Msgr. Patrick Dubois, Rector of Epiphany Cathedral, was present for the opening prayer service and offered a special blessing with holy water, just as he did on the first day of school in early August. This time, the blessing included prayers for families struggling to recover from losses caused by Ian, and also to thank the Lord that they were all reunited in praise of God.

By Oct. 10, all but four of the 15 Diocesan Catholic schools had reopened, with the exceptions being St Charles Borromeo Catholic School in Port Charlotte, St. Andrew Catholic School in Cape Coral, along with St. Francis Xavier Catholic School and Bishop Verot Catholic High School, both in Fort Myers. Each of those schools had some damage and are expected to resume classes by Oct. 18. The delays in reopening were primarily due to a lack of power and reliable drinking water in the impacted areas.

“It was too soon,” Father Belmonte said. “The extra time allowed us to work out logistical issues for mitigating and repairing damage while ensuring the faculty, staff and Catholic school families were more secure and prepared to return following the devastation of Hurricane Ian.”

The Diocesan schools that were spared the worst of the hurricane quickly rallied to collect needed emergency supplies to deliver to the schools in Lee and Charlotte counties.

St. Ann Catholic School in Naples, where the storm surge stopped short of entering any buildings, reopened on Oct. 10 and students were led in a prayer service by Father William Davis, Oblate of St. Francis de Sales and Pastor at the neighboring Parish. This school suffered severe damage following Hurricane Irma in 2017 and the repairs held as there was only minor damage, even though the area had winds in excess of 100 mph and the storm surge was at least 3-feet deep as it surrounded the school. The school also held a collection drive for needy families led by the Minnie Vinnies, a school service club associated with the St. Vincent de Paul Society of Naples. A concurrent outreach collected $75,000 in gift cards to local stores which were then distributed to families.

At St. John Neumann Catholic School in Naples, the apparel company Vans, best known for designer sneakers, delivered dozens of boxes of sneakers, t-shirts, and shorts on Oct. 7. Neumann Principal Sister Patricia Roche, Salesian Sister of St. John Boco, knows someone with the company, and gratefully accepted the donation before having students and staff organize the clothing and box it up to be sent to families in need throughout the Diocese.

St. Elizabeth Seton Catholic School, spared damage from Ian but nearly destroyed in Hurricane Irma, also collected items for families in need. The response was overwhelming as more than 300 individual care packages that equated to 10 carloads of food, water, diapers, air mattresses, care packages and more, were distributed to various communities in need.

At St. Catherine Catholic School in Sebring, where damage was minimal, the outreach of support was aimed at neighboring DeSoto and Hardee counties which were devastated by record river flooding. Reopened for classes by Oct. 4, the school and Parish accepted donations of water, blankets, clothing, food, sleeping mats, etc., and then loaded school buses to deliver the items.

“The Diocesan Catholic school community has rallied together during this time of difficulty for so many,” Father Belmonte said. “This has also been seen by the outpouring of support from outside the Diocese, with Catholic schools from all over the country reaching out, offering to send prayers, supplies and financial support. It really is heartwarming to see this, and it is particularly appreciated and welcomed by the Diocesan Catholic school communities where the suffering has been the greatest.”

Meanwhile, second graders at St. Martha Catholic School in Sarasota created special “Thank You!” cards to deliver to the men and women who helped to restore power. The school, as well as St. Mary Academy, reopened Oct. 4, and held collection drives which resulted in being able to send several loads of items to Lee County.

To support the recovery effort of Diocesan Catholic Schools please visit www.dovdoe.org/donate. This provides links on ways you can give directly to the Diocesan hurricane relief or to Catholic Charities.

Stories in wake of Ian

To put it simply, Hurricane Ian was a monster. The true scope is still unknown more than a week after landfall.

Following the passage of Hurricane Ian, people emerged from their homes to find the world turned upside-down. The spectrum of damage to the communities within the Diocese of Venice ranges from obliterated homes, floods and piles of yard debris and every impact in between.

Below are a few stories of the hurricane from around the Diocese:

Taking shelter

Father Patrick O’Connor, Oblate of St. Francis de Sales and Pastor of Jesus the Worker Parish in Fort Myers, decided to ride out the storm inside the Parish church with Parochial Vicar Father Jose del Olmo. This was safe a bet because the new church was completed in 2011 to the highest standards. The area around the church is a very poor migrant community with many manufactured homes or houses built in the 1950s. Because many sought safety in the church when Hurricane Irma approached in 2017, Father O’Connor posted on all the doors of the church and Parish offices a list of nearby shelters. When the storm began most went to shelters, but when it got worse, the church was the safest place.

“It was crazy!” Father O’Connor explained. “Lots of families… We could not even open most of the doors because of the wind.” Everyone was safe as the church came through unscathed. However, the Parish Hall lost roof tiles, and San Jose Mission in South Fort Myers, which is administered by Jesus the Worker, was inundated with flood waters. In the days after the storm passed, volunteers cleaned out the Mission church and hall as best they could. Since then, the Parish has a been abuzz with activity of relief efforts to help the community with needed emergency supplies with the assistance of several organizations, including Catholic Charities, Diocese of Venice, Inc.

Time for a barbecue

Nestled due east of Bradenton, St. Michael Parish in Wauchula sits in Hardee County, a rural community that prides itself on independence and resilience in times of adversity. Hurricane Ian has been the toughest challenge so far, but the spirit of the people remains strong as many families recover from the double hit of wind damage followed soon after by massive river flooding which caused hundreds to lose their homes to the Peace River. The Parish has a robust food pantry which is operated by a dedicated group of volunteers and the religious sisters who serve the community, Servant Sisters of the Virgin of Matara. With power out, it became clear that the food in the freezers would not last. So, a barbecue was planned for the night after the storm on Sept. 29. This was such a huge success; hot meals have been served each night since. Families emptied their own refrigerators and freezers before the food spoiled so the food was plentiful. Despite not having electricity, parish volunteers utilized a propane-powered stove and oven, outdoor grills and battery-powered lanterns to cook a hot meal each day following the hurricane. Outside large pots of pasta boiled while lasagna cooked in the kitchen of the Parish Hall. Since the storm, about 420 hot meals have been served each night. During the day, as more and more relief supplies arrive, distributions are taking place helping people get through each day.

Big truck, no forklifts, no problem

When three semitrailers full of supplies arrived at St. Katharine Drexel parish in Cape Coral on Tuesday, Sept. 4, and no forklifts were to be seen, a call went out for help. And help arrived in the form of dozens of volunteers, including many from the Parish Youth Outreach. These teens stepped up to help. The Cape Coral region experienced extreme damage and flooding and, even a week later, less than 20 percent of the city had power and few had drinkable water. The supplies being unloaded were desperately needed, even by some of the teens helping. Pastor Father Ricky Varner praised the youth for assisting in the difficult conditions.

Mary Statue spared

Some of the worst damage in the northern portions of the Diocese was to the roof of Incarnation Parish Church. Large chunks of copper roofing peeled off and were scattered everywhere. Some landed in the parking lot, others into carefully manicured gardens. One large piece that flew off the church building landed in a prayer garden where a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary stands and can be seen through a window as the faithful enter church. A post on social media from the Parish read: “Several large pieces fell here surrounding our Blessed Mother statue, but thankfully causing no harm!”

Still delivering meals

St. Vincent de Paul Society in Naples delivered Meals on Wheels amid Hurricane Ian’s destruction. Thanks to volunteers and staff, the Society was able to deliver shelf stable food to those who rely on Meals on Wheels for their daily meals. The Society posted to social media a day after Ian passed, “The destruction that was seen while delivering was truly heartbreaking.”

A new skylight

As the hurricane blew through Sarasota, the storm created a new skylight for Bishop Frank J. Dewane. Two large branches from an oak tree pierced the ceiling of his living room, causing damage and water to intrude. “I have two trees in my home, but I didn’t plant them,” Bishop Dewane said when explaining the damage to parishioners at Incarnation Parish in Sarasota on Oct. 1. The Bishop said he feels blessed to be alive after such a close encounter with an oak tree. “My issues are nothing compared to others who are going through a much greater loss. Roofs can be repaired. If not, I will decorate them for Christmas. The true focus now is on repairing the lives of those who are suffering in our Diocese.”

Check back in the next issue of The Florida Catholic for more stories of hope in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian.

Pastor installed at St. Martha in Sarasota

Father Jerzy “George” Susko, Society of Catholic Apostolate (SAC), was installed as Pastor of St. Martha Parish in Sarasota by Bishop Frank J. Dewane on Sept. 25, 2022.

Father Suszko was appointed as Pastor of the Parish in June following the retirement of longtime Pastor Father Fausto Stampiglia, SAC.

Bishop Dewane explained that the installation of a new Pastor is like a punctuation mark for the life of the Parish; a new era under the stewardship of Suszko.

“We do this installation because a Pastor is called upon to lead people closer to God through the areas of evangelization, worship of God and the caring for the poor,” Bishop Dewane said. “These are areas for which St. Martha Parish has a strong reputation and under Father George’s leadership, I know you will continue to do these well.”

The Bishop reminded the faithful of St. Martha of the need to support the new Pastor, and all of the priests, as they cannot do their daily ministry without such backing.

During the installation, the priest begins with selected words leading to the start of the Creed at which point he is joined by the faithful. At the end of the Creed, the new Pastor has extra lines which are exclusive for him. In addition, the Pastor takes an Oath of Fidelity to the Bishop and his successors; formalized by his placing his hand upon the Book of Gospels.

The ceremony concluded with the signing of documents by the Bishop, the new Pastor, and two official witnesses of the Parish community, who serve as witnesses for all of the parishioners. Those documents are split between the Parish and Diocese as well as the Pastor’s personnel records.

In support of Father Suszko, children in the Parish religious education program as well as students and faculty from St. Martha Catholic School and St. Mary Academy were present for Mass.

A welcoming reception was held for Father Suszko in the Parish Hall the evening before the installation.

Pastor installed in North Port

Father Thomas Carzon, Oblates of the Virgin Mary, was installed as Pastor of San Pedro Parish in North Port by Bishop Frank J. Dewane on Sept. 18, 2022.

Father Carzon was appointed as Pastor of the Parish in August following the passing of Father Patrick Organ, who served as Pastor in North Port for 30 years. Bishop Dewane explained that the installation of a new Pastor is like a punctuation mark for the life of the Parish; as Father Carzon will now care for the various spiritual dimensions of the community.

Bishop noted this was an important moment for the faith community at San Pedro and how the Parish and the Diocese are blessed to have religious priests from the Oblates of the Virgin Mary at San Pedro, who will bring their charism to the Parish. There are now two Oblates assigned there, with the arrival on Aug. 22 of Father Nathan Marzonie, OMV, who is newly ordained.

The Bishop reminded the people of San Pedro to support their Pastor in his daily work, in administering the Sacraments, as well as when he alone will be called to make difficult decisions that not everyone will always appreciate.

“He needs your support in many ways but in particular through prayer,” Bishop Dewane said.

During the installation, the priest begins with selected words leading to the start of the Creed at which point he is joined by the faithful. At the end of the Creed, the new Pastor has extra lines which are exclusive for him. In addition, the Pastor takes an Oath of Fidelity to the Bishop and his successors; formalized by his placing his hand upon the Book of Gospels.

The ceremony concluded with the signing of documents by the Bishop, the new Pastor, and two official witnesses of the Parish community, who serve as witnesses for all of the parishioners. Those documents are split between the Parish and Diocese as well as the Pastor’s personnel records.

“Bishop, thank you for entrusting the care of San Pedro to me and the (Oblate) community, and thank all of you here at San Pedro for welcoming us into your community,” Father Carzon said.

Following the Installation Mass, Father Carzon greeted well-wishers during a lunch reception in the Parish Life Center.

Summer camps bring love of Christ to young faces

“Learned about Jesus!” “Learned about the Bible!” “Took part in fun and games at my Parish!” “Took a trip with friends from my Parish!” “God loves me, no matter what!” “I developed skills to help one day become an engineer!” “Gained a devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary!” “Grew closer to the Lord!”

These are just some of the answers which children from across the Diocese of Venice will give to their friends and teachers when they return to the classroom and are asked: What did you do this summer?

At nearly every Parish in the Diocese there were a variety of captivating summer camps, with faith at their core. During these camps, thousands of children were engaged, and their young minds were, at least temporarily, focused on the Lord.

At eight Parishes, the Diocese of Venice Department of Religious Education and Office of Evangelization brought “Totus Tuus” camps for children and teens. This program was dedicated to sharing the Gospel and promoting the Catholic Faith through evangelization, catechesis, Christian witness and Eucharistic worship. The camps were directed by a team of four missionaries and two Diocesan seminarians. Parish staff and volunteers augmented the team and together they made the week memorable for all who participated.

The most common of these camps is the Vacation Bible School program which was offered at more than 35 parishes in the Diocese this summer. This weeklong Bible themed camp focused on learning the important lessons of Scripture in a fun and engaging way. The two most common themes this summer were “Monumental: Celebrating God’s Greatness” and “Come to Mama.” At Vacation Bible School, children attended daily Mass and participated in Eucharistic Adoration. They also learned uplifting songs and dances, made crafts and generally had a great time.

Several Parishes also hosted summer activities for the teens, some included taking part in service projects, while others went on retreat, either locally or even out-of-state.

A dozen different Diocesan groups took part in Camp Covecrest 2022, a Life Teen retreat throughout the summer in northern Georgia which focuses on leading teens closer to Christ. This is an intensive retreat which focuses the teens on building their relationship with the Lord through team activities, reflection, and prayer. The focus of these retreats included Eucharistic Adoration, opportunities for the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and participating in Mass.

In addition, St. Michael Parish in Wauchula, took a special trip for teens to Vogel State Park in Blairsville, Georgia. This trip was led by women religious of the Servants of the Lord and the Virgin of Matará. While based at the state park, the groups began each day with morning prayers, then travelled throughout the region and made certain to attend daily Mass at one of the local Catholic Churches. The evening routine included 30 minutes of talks and small group discussion, as well as 30 minutes of Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. Days were filled with a variety of activities, including hiking, rafting, swimming, as well as visits to water parks and more casual walks through mountain towns.

Meanwhile, multiple Diocesan Catholic schools hosted STREAM (Science, Technology, Religion, Engineering, Arts and Math) camps. Some of these camps covered several weeks and introduced the eager students to new projects such as arts and crafts, engineering various objects and other activities that incorporated the different aspects of STREAM. The longer camps stressed different skills and included field trips to augment the in-class experience. The camps actively incorporated Catholic values and virtues through the Diocesan curriculum called, “The Gifts of Christ: Truth, Beauty, Goodness, Affability, Fortitude, Humility, and Prudence.”

For the athlete in many of our young people, the area Catholic high schools hosted a variety of sports camps for soccer, football, basketball, cheerleading and many others. These camps offered a chance for younger children to learn the skills needed to excel in different sports while at the same time they had fun.

Catholic Charities in Bonita Springs held a summer-long camp for children which included a variety of fun games and projects giving the children the opportunity to show off their athletic, artistic and other skills. The campers also took a variety of fun field trips.

At Casa San Juan Bosco farmworker housing in Arcadia, Catholic Charities hosted a summer camp there for resident children. The activities included arts and crafts, as well as the opportunity to continue to develop their reading skills.

These are just some of the examples of the exciting activities that took place for the thousands of young people in the Diocese during the “slow” season.

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