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Church destroyed by Hurricane Ian to celebrate healing and hope

Special service on Sunday will bring Chapel by the Sea back to its roots

by Darla Carter | Presbyterian News Service

LOUISVILLE — Five months after Hurricane Ian destroyed a seaside Florida church, its members will gather beside the storm-ravaged building on Sunday, Feb. 19, for a service that’s being called a Celebration of Healing and Hope.

The congregation of Chapel by the Sea Presbyterian Church hasn’t been back to the site to worship as a group since Ian hit Estero Island in September 2022, destroying the sanctuary and the fellowship hall.

“Just having everybody together on the land, right next to this completely empty sanctuary, will be healing but also highly emotional,” said Clerk of Session Diane Means, who has visited the site with her husband many times since Ian struck. “Every time I go, I cry.”

With winds up to 150 mph, the Category 4 storm tied as the fifth-strongest hurricane ever to make landfall in the U.S. and brought with it an 11-foot storm surge that Chapel by the Sea could not withstand.

The church lost almost everything when Hurricane Ian struck. But a few treasured items were recovered, and no members lost their lives. (Photo courtesy of Chapel by the Sea)

“The storm surge went right through the building,” said the Rev. Dr. James Berger, the church’s outgoing interim pastor. “Across Estero Boulevard on the Gulf side, all of the buildings were wood — wood frame — so when the surge hit them, it picked them up and used them as a battering ram through our building.”

The church’s fellowship hall also took a beating. “The sanctuary was on the south side of the property, facing the Gulf,” Berger said. “The fellowship hall, Silver Hall, was behind it on the north side, and the surge went through that building,” which also got “hit from above by rain and wind, so we got it from both sides.”

Church Administrator Denise Armstrong was one of the first to see the damage to the church, which is in southwest Florida on an island that is part of the town of Fort Myers Beach. Arriving on foot, she stood aghast at the sheer magnitude of the damage.

“It took your breath away; it was sad,” Armstrong said. “It was just too hard to process.”

As a Category 4 storm with 150 mph maximum sustained winds, Hurricane Ian tied for the fifth-strongest hurricane ever to make landfall in the U.S., according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. (Photo courtesy of NOAA)

She added that “the mound of debris surrounding the church was so high, you couldn’t get near the building because all around it was just all the debris … and then the metal roof had slid down on top of everything,” and “everything was covered with sand.”

Most of Chapel by the Sea’s contents were lost, including chairs, Bibles, hymnals, candelabras, the Communion table and multiple pianos. But the church was able to recover a few treasured items, such as a large clam shell that had been used as a baptismal font, and the original church bell, Armstrong said.

Ian has been blamed for at least 144 deaths across the state of Florida. But “our members, thankfully, were safe,” Armstrong said. “Many lost their homes and are rebuilding and trying to move forward, but thankfully, we didn’t have anybody pass away that was a member.”

The Rev. Dr. James Berger has been interim pastor of Chapel by the Sea Presbyterian Church since 2021. His last day is Sunday, Feb. 19. In a pastoral message on Facebook, he said, “I know my limitations. I’m trained to be an interim pastor. You need a designated pastor skilled in congregation redevelopment.” (Contributed photo)

That will be reflected in the tone of Sunday’s service, Berger said. “God has not forgotten us and God is still present with us, and we are still the people of Chapel by the Sea, so it’s a sense of reassurance, renewal and thankfulness that God watches with us through the storm, and in the sunshine. And we’ll close with ‘Blessed Be the Tie That Binds.’”

Shortly after the storm, Cypress Lake Presbyterian Church, which is located about six miles away, opened its doors to Chapel by the Sea, which now has an office at the Cypress Lake church and has joint services with them.

“We’ve enjoyed being there,” Means said. “Many of us have participated in their social and fellowship activities and Bible studies since we’ve been there, and we feel very welcomed by the people.”

Means was drawn to her own church, Chapel by the Sea, because it has had a heart for missions, including providing food, clothing and showers for people on the beach who are experiencing homelessness.

Chapel by the Sea Presbyterian Church in southwest Florida was destroyed by Hurricane Ian in September 2022 (Photo courtesy of Chapel by the Sea)

Members are yearning to be together on Sunday, Armstrong said. “I think we need an opportunity as a group to grieve,” and “we’re going to end the service with tolling of the bell and tolling in our new future, whatever that might be,” Armstrong said. “It’s just an opportunity to reconnect and just to kind of say, ‘OK, goodbye to what we had, but God has in store something new.’ He’s always making something new.”

Representatives from Peace River Presbytery are among those who have been invited to the Sunday service.

“It’ll be a chance to sing, a chance to remember our heritage,” Berger said. “We’re the oldest church on the island. We go back to 1937,” and of the six churches on the beach, “we got hit the worst, but everybody got hit hard.”

People from across the country, including fellow Presbyterian churches, have made gifts to the church and offered their support. Presbyterian Disaster Assistance has made initial grants to Peace River Presbytery and has been in communication with the presbytery about additional grants for long-term recovery throughout the presbytery, where several other churches also sustained damage, said the Rev. Jim Kirk, PDA Associate for National Disaster Response.

“A significant part of the recovery is knowing that you’re not facing it alone, but you have a community and a denomination that is supporting you with prayers and with resources,” Kirk said. “PDA and PMA are committed to walk with Peace River Presbytery for the long-term.”

Meanwhile, a task force has been set up to help determine the future of Chapel by the Sea. Means said they’re looking at all the options, including “what would be the cost of rebuilding and not necessarily to the same footprint. … We have shrunk dramatically, so we’re not even talking about building anything to the way it was before. Financially, we can’t afford it.”

The task force is “meeting with the general contractor, the architect, now the appraiser, just trying to sort out where are we going to go? What are we going to do? And this is so huge,” Berger said. “We don’t even have a ruling from the town yet as to whether or not this building is condemned or not.”

Means said, “I am very willing to go whichever way we feel God is leading us. That’s the purpose of the task force — to examine all the options and look at it from all levels and all angles,” including how they would meet building codes.

The Sunday program will be the last service for Berger, who has been interim pastor since August 2021 and jokingly calls himself the disaster pastor after enduring multiple hurricanes over the years while at various churches. He also sustained major damage to his own home.

“As a minister, I want to be the big hero and bring them through this,” he said of Chapel by the Sea. But “this is going to be uncharted territory for everybody — it already is — so whoever takes over is going to …  have a very daunting task of helping them discern a whole new future.” He went on to quote Isaiah 43:18-19, saying, “Do not remember the former things or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”

Means said, “Even before that hurricane hit, he (Berger) knew he was going to move on to an interim placement at some point and would miss us greatly.” She praised him for being a skilled leader who’s been a great listener and a great comforter. “All the pieces of the ministry, he’s done well.”

Presbyterian Disaster Assistance is one of the Compassion, Peace and Justice ministries of the Presbyterian Mission Agency. It is supported by your gifts to One Great Hour of Sharing.

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