Our Mother of Mercy

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

But it's a bit murkier than that. While actual chapels are not eligible for FEMA funds, other types of church structures, like Comeaux Hall, can be FEMA-eligible. "The [archdiocese] tore down the parish hall, which was like a community center," Simmons says. "FEMA will give you money to replace a community center if it has been destroyed by the hurricane, but this was not destroyed by the hurricane. It was destroyed by the Cardinal's demolition people."

Without any proof or documentation, Simmons aired this accusation in the Beach Triton, a scrappy little weekly newspaper on the peninsula that is owned by a friend of hers.

She also says that the archdiocese turned a Galveston County building inspector named Sean Welsh away from evaluating Comeaux Hall, while allowing Welsh to evaluate only the more-damaged buildings — the rectory and the church. In the end, the church was given a two on a scale of one to four, with four being the most damaged.

After Cardinal DiNardo stripped him of his parish in Hempstead, Father Christopher Terry chose to lead the renegade flock of former Our Mother of Mercy parishioners in Port Bolivar.
Photo by Chris Curry
After Cardinal DiNardo stripped him of his parish in Hempstead, Father Christopher Terry chose to lead the renegade flock of former Our Mother of Mercy parishioners in Port Bolivar.

Welsh would not answer our questions, and referred us to his boss: Mike Fitzgerald, Galveston County Engineer. Fitzgerald told the Houston Press that he believed that the score of two was meant to be applied to the entire complex and not just the church. After checking his records, he said that was not the case — he verified that the church was assessed by his office, but said that Comeaux Parish Hall was not. [Comeaux Hall] was demolished, and there was no permit issued," Fitzgerald says. Fitzgerald adds that there is some confusion about the address of the parish hall — apparently it did not have one of its own until after the storm, whereupon it got two, both of which Fitzgerald says are listed in his files.

Simmons says she has reported His Eminence to the Texas FEMA fraud hotline not once but twice. "They wanted to know what he looked like and I told them," she laughs. "They wanted his address and I told them where they could find him in Houston." She doesn't know if the agency took any further action, and FEMA declined to tell the Press whether or not an investigation had been opened.

In an e-mail interview with the Press, archdiocese spokeswoman Jenny Faber issued a blanket denial of Simmons's accusations. "The Archdiocese has received no disaster assistance funds from the State or FEMA for the damage to any buildings located on the site of the former Our Mother of Mercy Parish in Port Bolivar, including Comeaux Hall."

"In terms of damage to the structures, FEMA, in its own assessment of the property, determined there was extensive damage to Comeaux Hall and that the repair cost was greater than 50 percent of the replacement cost," Faber wrote.

Faber wrote that the funding for Our Lady by the Sea Chapel and Catholic Center came from the newly reorganized Holy Family Catholic parish (the faith community established to serve all Catholics on Galveston Island and Bolivar Peninsula), a grant from the Archdiocese, and "the generous gift from the Daniel Kohlhofer estate."

The Press submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to FEMA for documents relating to Our Mother of Mercy and Comeaux Parish Hall back in July. As of this writing, it is languishing somewhere in FEMA limbo.

The matter of the "generous gift from the Daniel Kohlhofer estate" is less murky.

Daniel Kohlhofer was one of the peninsula's titans of commerce — the proprietor of the Gulf Coast Market. Known informally as the Big Store, it's something like an independent Walmart — inside its cavernous expanses, you can buy everything from souvenir T-shirts to acrylic paint, suitcases of Budweiser to socket wrenches and doorknobs. However, while Kohlhofer was blessed with Sam Walton's business acumen, he was not as lucky in the longevity department. In 2004 the 51-year-old was robbed and murdered by a career criminal to whom Kohlhofer had offered a ride.

In his will, as item A in the disposition of his estate, Kohlhofer left 10 percent of his $3 million to "the building fund of Our Mother of Mercy in Port Bolivar, Texas." As the entire church complex was then valued at about $230,000 in Galveston County tax records, or even using the chancery's estimate of $300,000 in damages, Kohlhofer's bequest seemed more than enough to right what Ike had wrought upon the church.

Recalls Simpton: "The secretary of the church called me one time and said, 'Can you believe it? Dan left the church $300,000 for repairs?' And I said, 'When will that ever [be needed]?'"

Three years later, the answer to Simpton's question was there for all to see, but again, the Cardinal had other plans.

Now Our Lady by the Sea sits directly across Highway 87 from the Big Store in the heart of Crystal Beach. If the surviving Kohlhofer family members had a problem with the way Daniel's money was spent, they aren't saying so, at least not publicly these days. In the past they haven't been quite so shy. While Daniel's surviving brother, David Kohlhofer, did not return repeated phone calls from the Press, a report filed by KPRC-TV last June stated that the Kohlhofer family wanted Daniel's money returned if it was not going to be used at Our Mother of Mercy.

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