Wednesday, September 25, 2019
Ana Rodriguez Soto - Florida Catholic newspaper
Photography: ANA RODRIGUEZ-SOTO | FC
BIG PINE KEY | Some people leave a piece of their heart in church. Parishioners of St. Peter in Big Pine Key are taking pieces of their church home.
That’s because the church did not fare well after taking a direct hit from Hurricane Irma in September 2017. While the walls withstood the wind, the inside succumbed to water damage.
“The water went in the church and it was like a washing machine inside,” said Father Jesus "Jets" Medina, parish administrator.
The extent of the damage means the church — and a nearby rectory — must be rebuilt to meet the current hurricane code. That demolition process started Sept. 13, when Auxiliary Bishop Enrique Delgado blessed the two condemned buildings.
A groundbreaking ceremony followed featuring parishioners, donors, archdiocesan staff, civic officials and representatives of the construction and architectural firms.
Demolition was expected to take about four weeks and construction about 12 months — and $9 million.
“We need to demolish the old temple to bring the church into a new reality,” Bishop Delgado told those gathered. He noted that the new church will be “elevated” — about five feet higher than the current one — so everybody driving past on the Overseas Highway will see it.
“I thought it would be a sad day, but we are all happy to move on after the loss of our church,” said Rosalinda Hally, a parishioner since 2001 and the church’s volunteer photographer since 2014. “I miss the church building, and especially kneeling during consecration during the Mass. I think we are all ready to see our church rebuilt.”
Indeed, the tight-knit community of Peterites, as they call themselves, wasted little time lamenting after Irma passed. They wiped away their tears at a Sunday Mass celebrated exactly one week after the storm — a moment captured by a photographer and displayed on the front page of the Wall Street Journal.
“It was so needed,” said the church’s property manager and bookkeeper, Nancy McCrosson, a parishioner since 2010. “There wasn’t a dry eye at that Mass. It started the healing right away.”
Then they got busy, McCrosson said. She called it “repurposing.”
First, they took the main altar and ambo from the church, both made of coral rock, and moved them to the outdoor pavilion on the parish grounds. They turned the matching but damaged baptismal font into a holy water fountain. They reclaimed the air conditioning unit from the church and also moved it to the pavilion, where a parishioner installed some duct work. Then they covered the whole area with a tent, like the ones used for outdoor receptions.
“Once the tent goes up, we have air conditioning,” said McCrosson. The tent has clear cutouts through which parishioners can watch Keys deer grazing on the nearby soccer field.
“We have Catholic deer,” she said. “The ushers have to make sure the deer don’t come in.”
In the winter months, when visitors and snowbirds abound, about 250 people gather at St. Peter’s pavilion for Sunday Masses. During the stifling heat of the summer offseason, when only year-round residents remain, about 85 can gather in the second floor of the ministry center. It’s the third building on the site and the only one that was not badly damaged by the storm.
McCrosson and her husband rode out Irma’s fury in that second floor. Built to the newest hurricane code after a scraping by category 2 Georges in 1998, the ministry center “was a safe place to stay,” she said.
‘GIRLS AT A ROLLER COASTER’
Still, it was not a pleasant experience. She remembers the winds, which “sounded like little girls at a roller coaster.” Even scarier was watching the rising waters fill the building’s first floor, which is used as a garage. Through impact windows, she watched appliances float out the door, smelled gas from the lawnmowers stored inside, and heard the clunking of floating debris hitting the ceiling underneath her feet.
Now, the second floor of the ministry center serves as parish office, daily Mass chapel and church on summer Sundays, in addition to hosting the usual meetings and religious education classes.
“We are surviving here because of that building,” McCrosson said.
When people come for Mass there, they gather around the altar and tabernacle salvaged from the chapel in the old church. They also see familiar statues of the Holy Family and the Blessed Mother. Behind the altar is a replica of the painting — a boat in tempest-tossed seas — that adorned the church’s sanctuary.
The mural itself, painted onto the wall, could not be saved. But McCrosson took a picture of it with her cell phone and asked a local artist to paint a miniature version.
“I think you need something familiar. It can’t all be new,” she said.
The artist did such a good job that even the muck line — evidence of how high the water reached — is reflected in the painting.
Finally, a few months prior to the demolition, parishioners started pulling everything else out of the damaged church.
“We salvaged everything we could out of there,” said John Krieger, a member of the Knights of Columbus.
The pews, made of white oak, were cleaned and sold. “Termites and water do not break white oak,” he explained. Restaurants bought them to use as seating for people waiting for a table. Someone else installed a half-pew on his boat.
Coral rocks — basketball-sized boulders that adorned the main church, as well as smaller ones that bordered the garden — yielded $2,000. Pavers were saved and will be re-used for landscaping around the new church. Parishioners also plan to raise funds by selling church memorabilia that has been “repurposed” by local artists and residents.
“We literally have swinging doors in our church that went into the sacristy,” McCrosson said. “They look like saloon doors. We’re going to make a lot of money from those doors.”
Also preserved: 25 stained glass windows installed around the church, that survived thanks to shutters and impact windows. Combining seascapes and Gospel scenes, the stained glass represents more than two decades of work by Connie Hauk, the church’s administrative assistant and a parishioner for 26 years.
A self-taught artist, she designed the windows at the request of St. Peter’s former pastor, Father Thomas “Tony” Mullane. Hauk learned the painstaking techniques of making stained glass and taught them to parishioners who volunteered to help. She estimated around 200 people over the past 25 years had a hand in their creation.
“A lot of pieces of me” were in the church, she noted. And with her they will move to the new church.
“It’s the memory,” said McCrosson. “It’s our heartbeat.”