Our Mother of Mercy

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

But that's the way it is with leaving your money to any one Catholic church: in Houston or Galveston, you might just as well leave the money to Cardinal DiNardo personally, for as a "corporation sole," he can choose to spend a bequest to any church under his jurisdiction any way he wants to. (That lesson did not go unnoticed elsewhere in the archdiocese: A $1 million bequest from one of Galveston's historic and wealthy families is said to have been held up until the donor could verify the money would be spent as he wished: namely, to restore historic St. Mary's Basilica, which has yet to reopen post-Ike.)

Today, the hardcore remnants of Our Mother of Mercy meet bright and early every Sunday in Port Bolivar United Methodist Church. Perhaps 30 souls were there on a hot morning in August — some of their erstwhile co-parishioners have finally made peace with their former St. Therese rivals and now attend the Crenshaw service, while others go to Galveston or even Houston, and still others are rumored to have left the faith.

These hard-liners are ministered to by a rebel priest named Father Christopher Terry. A man much given to conspiracy theories, Terry says he is in very bad standing with his bosses in Houston. After a dispute he had with the chancery regarding what Terry said were shady dealings at a Brazos Valley Knights of Columbus hall, he says he was stripped of his Hempstead parish. He also admits that DiNardo tried to put him in the Shalom Center, a place where troubled priests go to get better.

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.

Father Terry says he came to this congregation when he heard that Cardinal DiNardo forbade Father Nguyen from giving Mass here in June of 2009. Some say Terry took this pulpit to show up DiNardo. Renegade priest, meet renegade congregation.

They hardly look like a bunch of heretics or firebrands. A line of pickup trucks — most bearing stickers from some branch of the military — is parked on the grass outside the church, and their drivers fit the red-state, blue-collar image. Still, everyone in this tiny flock has serious issues with DiNardo, their putative shepherd.

The congregation feels lied to. Windy Gill says the Cardinal told him before the storm that Our Mother of Mercy was there to stay. "He told us 28 days before Ike that we didn't have to worry about the church. He told me it would be there for all time. Looks like he lied to my face."

To a person, they feel slighted. Post-Ike, DiNardo never deigned to appear at their church. Nor did he send auxiliary bishop Joe Vasquez, or even a monsignor, or hell, even a full priest. Instead, that task fell to a mere deacon named Charlie Duck. Deacon Duck was tasked with the unenviable job of easing Galveston and Bolivar Catholics into the area's diminished post-Ike role within the archdiocese. To the parishioners of Our Mother of Mercy, this was something akin to Brad Mills sending out the equipment manager to tell Roy Oswalt that the Astros no longer required his services.

"The archdiocese did a poor job of public relations and I think we could have had it all resolved if they had sat down with my clients and explained to them why they had to do this," said Bertini, the Galveston attorney hired by the parish. "Was it lack of priests? Was it lack of parishioners? Was it something that really needed to be done? And they didn't do that. They sent down a deacon and I think my clients deserved somebody higher up the food chain — an auxiliary bishop or something."

Bertini understands that the Cardinal has a busy schedule. "I heard that over and over again — how he's not gonna kowtow to every Catholic with a problem. Fine. Could you at least send down a monsignor?"

While damage control was also a big part of the harried Deacon Duck's portfolio, one person he failed miserably to mollify was Marcus Comeaux. Our Mother of Mercy's parish hall was named after the burly, bald-headed Cajun's grandparents, a fruitful and revered couple whose descendants are both influential and numerous in the area. In the spring of 2009, when Comeaux found out the hall was to be razed, he inquired about how he could remove his grandfather's World War II medals from their display case in the building. Deacon Duck told him the medals were gone. Comeaux asked where he could find them. "Deacon Duck said, 'You might try looking in the dump,'" Comeaux recalled. He did look for them, but they were not found.

Gaffes like that were not limited to Deacon Duck. The Cardinal himself utterly embittered Joyce Simpton. Simpton had once, not that long ago, been a big fan of His Eminence. When he was named a cardinal, she had boarded the ferry and then made the drive to Houston to meet and greet the head of the archdiocese. She also mingled with him several years in a row at an annual Christmas party at Gaido's in Galveston.

He seemed godly and nice enough for a time, but she thinks he's changed. "His attitude since he became the Cardinal is very arrogant," she says. "He just seems to want to dress up in his robes and be in the news. God forgive me if I'm wrong, but right is right and wrong is wrong."

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