Our Mother of Mercy

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

And that was how things remained until June of 2009, when a demolition team suddenly arrived at OMM and bulldozed the barbecue shack, rectory and Comeaux Parish Hall. The church would have gone down that day too were it not for DaFonte, Sandra Simmons and Judy Shaw, who joined together and got a last-minute injunction and filed a lawsuit against the archdiocese to stop the demolition. (Still, the stained-glass windows were removed that day, to be recycled for later use.)

Days later, the archdiocese released a statement by then-auxiliary bishop Joe Vasquez (now the bishop of Austin) laying out the chancery's side of the story. Vasquez claimed that Our Mother of Mercy's restoration cost was about 50 percent of its value — a figure Vasquez pegged at "$300,000 or more" — and that price did not include any improvements toward making it flood-resistant or to make it accessible to the disabled. (Not true, says Simpton; she points out that any pre-Ike picture of the church clearly shows wheelchair ramps.)

So, based on "known costs," the "near certainty" of another flood, and in anticipation of what the archdiocese asserted would be a blizzard of red tape from county officials, the archdiocese decided to tear the church down. What's more, they needed to do it fast so FEMA could remove the debris at taxpayer expense.

Former Our Mother of Mercy parishioner John DaFonte says the church could have been repaired and reopened without a dime coming from the archdiocese.
Photo by Chris Curry
Former Our Mother of Mercy parishioner John DaFonte says the church could have been repaired and reopened without a dime coming from the archdiocese.
Widely regarded as a saint by the others in her former congregation, Joyce Simpton's very faith was shaken, if not quite broken, by Our Mother of Mercy's destruction.
Photo by Chris Curry
Widely regarded as a saint by the others in her former congregation, Joyce Simpton's very faith was shaken, if not quite broken, by Our Mother of Mercy's destruction.

Vasquez acknowledged that the demolition was a bitter surprise to many, even though no mass had then been held on the peninsula for nine months. He held out the promise of a golden tomorrow — a new church in Crystal Beach. "The next time the Bolivar Peninsula floods, we're hoping our parishioners will be facing the prospect of resuming their mass schedule in a dry church within a week or so instead of the prospect of cleaning up Our Mother of Mercy once more at the cost of $300,000 or more."

Around the same time, it also came to light that Cardinal DiNardo had expressly forbidden OMM's former priest, Father Joseph Nguyen, to say a mass — one that would have been the first on the peninsula since Ike — in Port Bolivar United Methodist Church, as he and his former parishioners had arranged. DiNardo took a beating in the press, and shortly after this PR debacle, a priest was finally dispatched to the peninsula, albeit very much on DiNardo's terms. Mass was to be held in Crenshaw Elementary and Middle School, not Our Mother of Mercy, or at the Methodist church that the former OMM parishioners wanted to use.

Meanwhile, DaFonte, Simmons and Shaw and Galveston attorney Christopher Bertini, a devout Catholic who is almost as disenchanted with DiNardo as his former clients, took on the archdiocese in court. The case bounced from county court to federal court and back and finally was ruled on in favor of the archdiocese, thus sealing Our Mother of Mercy's doom. The church building was finally razed earlier this summer.

Today, Bertini still seems astonished at the unbending inflexibility of the archdiocese. He says he offered a deal — even if the church could not be saved as such, a group of parishioners could buy it and turn it into a community center.

"They just said they were gonna tear it down," Bertini remembers. "I gotta tell you, it was not a pleasant experience to go through this. They had fine lawyers. They were good men. They were professional across the board, but their marching orders came from the archdiocese, and they said, 'We're not gonna negotiate, we're tearing this down and you can't stop us.' And they spent a heck of a lot of money, and they could have just had a one-hour meeting. And now you've got a bunch of angry Catholics."

Judy Shaw, a Port Bolivar resident who works in Galveston as an insurance broker, was one of the three co-plaintiffs. She too was astonished at the legal bills the archdiocese racked up. She says she counted as many as seven lawyers (often from Vinson & Elkins) arrayed against Bertini in their case.

Other parishioners were astounded at how much the archdiocese seemed willing to spend in its effort to destroy the church; Gill and DaFonte say that off-duty Galveston County Sheriff's deputies guarded the empty buildings around the clock, at about $30 an hour, for months. They never could understand why the archdiocese felt the need to go to all that expense — Port Bolivar is hardly a haven for crime, and the buildings were empty.

People like former commercial airline pilot and current Galveston ISD trustee Sandra Simmons think they know why.
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In order to bring some order out of the chaos of disaster relief, the United States Congress passed a law known loosely as the Stafford Act. According to its provisions, it's allowable for FEMA money to flow to public or private nonprofit facilities that provide essential governmental services, such as education, to the general public. Buildings used primarily for religious purposes or instruction are expressly ruled out. It would seem to be a basic church and state issue — American taxpayers do not fund church-building or compensate destroyed churches.

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