FORT MYERS, Fla. (CNS) – If it’s all about timing, then historic St. Francis Xavier Church in downtown Fort Myers got it just right with the completion of a much-needed new roof last February.
“More than likely that saved our church from complete devastation, said Father Anthony Hewitt, pastor at St. Francis Xavier.
Founded in 1910, the church is just a few blocks from the city’s downtown riverfront area, which suffered heavy flooding and is thought of as ground zero for the Hurricane Ian catastrophe in southwest Florida.
The parish community has withstood more than a few hurricanes over the years, but in particular 2017’s Hurricane Irma and now Ian are on people’s minds now.
“This is the second hurricane in five years impacting us directly in downtown in Lee County and both have been extraordinarily challenging in terms of the damages and recovery,” the priest said on Oct 5.
His church’s campus and school has electricity once again, but the parish was still waiting for water pressure to be restored, grounds cleanup, and repairs to a security fence necessary for the church and school to safely function.
Father Hewitt and his parish staff and volunteers have been busy phoning the 700 or so registered households to see how they are doing, while the priest also continues to respond in person to the spiritual needs of the sick and dying as best he can.
The unsettling question is what will become of the parish families following the Sept. 28 hurricane. Many left the area or are staying with family members nearby.
“There are parishioners who have lost their homes completely due to winds and flooding waters and there is the loss of a sense of connection as they don’t know where to go now,” Father Hewitt said.
“Plus we also have teachers who have lost their homes and we need to find them a place to rest their heads and so they can teach,” he added.
After Hurricane Irma, the church began minor repairs on its leaky roof, but over the years it became evident an entirely new roof was needed. And so the priest began a capital campaign and the new roof was installed five years after Irma.
Father Hewitt describes St. Francis Xavier as a downtown parish with a diverse mix of members – young families with newborns, adolescents, retirees, and a broad mix of cultures and language groups, including Haitian-Creole speakers.
The first weekend after Hurricane Ian passed, Father Hewitt organized an outdoor holy Communion service in the parking lot followed by a community get-together where tears were shed and thanks also given.
“We had a fantastic turnout. We texted some people and they texted other people and others were driving by and they stopped in,” the priest said. “One youngster looked at me and asked, ‘When can I go back home?’ and it just breaks your heart.”
“I think of these young people 8 years old who went through the (coronavirus) pandemic and now this hurricane, with the experience of pain and loss of everything that they thought was important to them,” he added. “But now they know that family closeness is what’s important.”
All the parish staff had some degree of personal property damage or impact, but no one lost their home outright, Father Hewitt noted.
There are still questions about some of the nearby churches in the Diocese of Venice, including those on Sanibel Island and Pine Island as well as in Fort Myers Beach. Early reports are not encouraging and point toward possible catastrophic losses.
Father Hewitt said he has been fielding phone calls from around the country as people ask how they can help or just express solidarity. And even during the recovery phase, a priest still gets calls from people saying their loved one is dying and requests anointing of the sick.
“I tell them I will get to them when I can due to the roads, and sometimes that takes an extra hour to get through the debris and checkpoints where you may or may not get through; even in the midst of a natural disaster life goes on.”
“We just long to get back to celebrating the Eucharist in our church,” the priest said.
Across the street, John Gulley, principal of St. Francis Xavier School, sees a mixed picture. He estimated that after the school reopens, some of the families will face financial hardship to meet tuition in the midst of their own loss of property or employment.
But there also is an early indication that some of the public-school students from hard-hit Sanibel Island will enroll their children here.
St. Francis Xavier School was founded by the Franciscan Sisters of Allegany, New York, beginning with 68 students and four sisters in 1938. A major expansion occurred in 1980 when the school doubled the classrooms to two classes per grade level.
Today, the school employs some 38 teachers and serves 490 students.
An initial survey revealed that as many as 5 percent of the school families have lost their homes. Other school families have yet to be reached. They generally live in Fort Myers, Fort Myers Beach, Cape Coral, and North Fort Myers as the school functions as a kind of regional Catholic school.
“The (school) building has a lot of damage but nothing compared to the damage to our families; so many have lost everything and that’s where the need is,” said Gulley, a self-described “U.S. Air Force brat” who has been in the Fort Myers area since he was a youngster.
Oct. 5 was the first day Gulley was able to sit down in his office and start getting back to work. He said he has received emails and calls from other schools around Florida and around the country in places such as Miami, Chicago, Minnesota, and Louisiana wishing to help in some way.
Most area Catholic schools are at capacity and were just finding their footing again following two years of pandemic uncertainty, Gulley said.
“It’s sad because last year or two we weren’t able to do a lot of public events because of COVID-19, and now because of the hurricane, here we are again,” he added. “I am sure we will get back to normal and things will be fine.”
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