Our Mother of Mercy

How far did cardinal go in tearing down Ike-ravaged church?

Ask any person of the cloth — the Lord works in a mysterious way, and nowhere more so than on the Bolivar Peninsula after Hurricane Ike. Especially for the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston: Human logic and raw capitalism would have dictated the opposite outcome Ike delivered.

Maddeningly for the Church's bean counters, Ike's fury merely sideswiped Our Mother of Mercy, a dowdy, declining parish of only 75 registered members in sleepy bayside Port Bolivar. While that number was swollen by vacationers in the summer, the archdiocese viewed the church as old and in the way, especially in comparison to the newer, relatively sexy St. Therese of Lisieux, a sanctuary seven miles away in booming Crystal Beach. St. Therese did not last for even 15 years; the 1994 construction had to be razed when its post-Ike remains were deemed a safety hazard.

While His Eminence Daniel Cardinal DiNardo and his underlings cursed their luck in the Chancery in Houston, some of the parishioners of 50-year-old OMM believed a heavenly miracle had taken place. Amid some of the most extensive devastation the Texas coast had ever seen, their church was a rare survivor. Sure, the buildings in the humble little complex — a church, a rectory, a parish hall and a barbecue shack — had at least some flood damage, and maybe a little mold, but they were all still structurally sound and salvageable. Indeed, Comeaux Parish Hall, which stood on a little elevation, was said to be practically in pre-storm fettle — several parishioners say only two inches of water made it into the building.

Windy and Mary Gill helped build Our Mother of Mercy. They say the church had been built with barbecues, ­bazaars, gumbo cookoffs and rodeos.
Photo by Chris Curry
Windy and Mary Gill helped build Our Mother of Mercy. They say the church had been built with barbecues, ­bazaars, gumbo cookoffs and rodeos.
Our Mother of Mercy's parish hall was named after Marcus Comeaux's grandparents. He says the archdiocese added insult to injury when they tore it down.
Photo by Chris Curry
Our Mother of Mercy's parish hall was named after Marcus Comeaux's grandparents. He says the archdiocese added insult to injury when they tore it down.

And they all believed that Our Mother of Mercy, the site of two generations' worth of baptisms, first communions, marriages, barbecues and funerals, would go on being the focal point of life for Bolivar's Catholics, even after the dirty side of Ike's eyewall had raked the peninsula all but bare.

"Our church survived Hurricane Carla and Hurricane Ike, one of the worst storms in a century, and every other storm in between. That church looked like it did before the storm after we got back," says Joyce Simpton, a 75-year-old matron of the church, whom other parishioners describe straight-out as "a saint."

"If they'd have let us in there we could have had it cleaned up in one day," claims 87-year-old parishioner Windy Gill, who had a hand in building OMM in 1959. Way back then, salt-crusted Bolivar natives like Gill — a tough customer with steely eyes over the pearl-snap shirt and suspenders he wears to Mass — built the church with no assistance, monetary or otherwise, from the diocese. Once the church was done, they proudly deeded over their building to the Chancery. Compared to that feat, rebuilding would be easy.

Marcus Comeaux, the grandson of the couple after whom the church's parish hall was named, believed that the total cost to bring the entire complex back to pre-storm conditions would have been at most $100,000 — mold remediation isn't cheap. And that would be using paid labor, he stresses, which would have been largely unnecessary. People in Bolivar have always pitched in when needed, he said, and Comeaux, Gill and people like 65-year-old John DaFonte believe it could have been done with no help from Houston. "The archdiocese didn't spend a penny [in 1959], and it would have been the same to rebuild it," DaFonte says. "We built that church with rodeos, bazaars and barbecues," Gill remembers. "We'd barbecue 500 chickens at a time." They could do the same again, he said. Even after the rebuild, all they would need from the archdiocese was the services of a priest. They would pay the operating costs for the church out of their own pockets.

And what was more — they had an ace in the hole. Not long before the storm, a wealthy parishioner had left the parish a bequest of several hundred thousand dollars. No matter how you looked at it, Our Mother of Mercy seemed like one of the luckiest churches in all of coastal Galveston County.

But Cardinal DiNardo had other plans. He wanted Our Mother of Mercy gone. And as for that bequest — he would simply take it over the family's objections and use it to build another church in Crystal Beach, where he preferred it to be.

By February of 2009, about five months after the storm, the relief of Our Mother of Mercy's parishioners was withering. With good reason, they were starting to wonder if their church would ever reopen. Meanwhile, while there had been no progress on repairing their church, religious life was returning all over their neighborhood, where Protestant congregations were holding services on bare slabs outdoors.

On the other hand, by order of Cardinal DiNardo, and despite being one of the few congregations with an intact (if unrepaired) building, no masses were held at or even anywhere near Our Mother of Mercy, which had been fenced off by order of the Cardinal.

In order to worship, Bolivar's Catholics were forced to ride the ferry to Galveston (the wait was often two hours coming and going) or drive 48 miles each way to Winnie. According to DaFonte, DiNardo said that it would be easier for all the parishioners to come to a priest rather than for a priest to come to them.

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