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Today in the Mission Yearbook

Church destroyed by Hurricane Ian celebrate healing and hope


Special service brings Chapel by the Sea back to its roots

March 25, 2023

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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)

Five months after Hurricane Ian destroyed a seaside Florida church, its members gathered beside the storm-ravaged building on Sunday, Feb. 19, for a service called a Celebration of Healing and Hope.

The congregation of Chapel by the Sea Presbyterian Church hadn’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.

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 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.”

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.

As a Category 4 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)

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.”

That was reflected in the tone of the 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.”

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.

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.”

Darla Carter, Communications Strategist, Presbyterian Mission Agency

Revised Common Lectionary Readings for Saturday, March 25, 2023, the Annunciation of the Lord (Year A)

Today’s Focus: Chapel by the Sea

Let us join in prayer for:

PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
Judy Walton, Director, Credit Operations, Presbyterian Investment & Loan Program
Laura Wampler, Operations & Accounting Associate, Presbyterian Publishing Corporation

Let us pray

Merciful God, we give thanks to you for our day-to-day blessings. Give us faith and strength to help the people who are suffering. We pray for God’s kingdom and his glory. We also pray for bearing fruit through mission works that you have given to us. Amen.