Our Mother of Mercy

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

In an effort to save her beloved church, she poured her soul into a letter to His Eminence, telling him just what Our Mother of Mercy meant to her, and personally presented it to him. About the Comeaux family and how everybody would meet and eat in their namesake hall after funerals, about the 50th Anniversary party she had when her husband was still alive, all the wedding receptions and other joyous gatherings. "He looked at the first few lines of that letter and I think it might have been Deacon Duck that was sitting across from him, but he just opened the letter and looked at the first few lines and kinda snickered, like heh-heh, and goes, 'More stuff.'"

"That hurt," she says.

Today the former Our Mother of Mercy site is a vacant lot. As of September 21, the two Catholic congregations on the Bolivar Pensinsula are to merge and meet in Our Lady By the Sea Chapel and Community Center, an enormous, baby-blue boxlike almost-finished building erected, in part using Kohlhofer's bequest, on the former site of St. Therese in Crystal Beach. One thing's for sure — the reportedly $2.1 million Our Lady By the Sea was not built by self-reliant parishioners and their barbecues, bake sales, gumbo cook-offs, rodeos and bazaars as Our Mother of Mercy had been.

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.

In the words of the archdiocese, the hulking Our Lady is not exactly a church, but "a storm-resistant, multi-use structure available on weekends for worship and during the week for community meetings and social events."

Our Lady totters on stilts, like a beach-house, in hopes that it will be able to rise above the Peninsula's devastating storm surges, and it will likely need every inch of clearance it has, for "by the sea" it most definitely is. And it's in Crystal Beach, which the diocese claims has the advantage of being more central to the Peninsula as a whole.

Cynics, like Simmons, say geography has little to do with it. While Crystal Beach is hardly Malibu or Destin or even Port Aransas in the glamour department, it is where a lot of people have second homes, and thus some extra money. Port Bolivar, hugging the lip of the workaday bay, is more for the blue-collar, year-round resident.

"It's because of money, money, money," Simmons says. "[DiNardo] makes more money if people see the church right there on the highway across the street from the Big Store." (To be fair, the new church is more centrally located and closer to the peninsula's fat cats, so it's win-win for everyone except the people in Port Bolivar.)

The ordeal has embittered the congregation utterly. One parishioner joked that the Cardinal was trying to make Lutherans of them all. Simmons says she won't be going when it opens. "It's not my church," she says, and adds that she believes that the archdiocese is responsible for embittering the members of the Peninsula's two now-razed churches against each other.

Others grouse about the millions lavished on the new cathedral in Houston, not to mention other, less joyous matters. Judy Shaw recalls telling Deacon Duck that maybe OMM could have stayed open had there not been so many costly settlements to pay out to the victims of pedophile priests. "I would never have said anything like that before," she says. "But they have made me, not a nonbeliever, but it's just that I couldn't believe that he would do something like that to the people. Him, a priest, and representing God. Like I kept telling him — 'You're supposed to be helping the sheep, but you're not. I don't know who you think you are.'"

It's been enough to shake — but not break — even the faith of the saintly Joyce Simpton. Although you'll still find her in Mass every Sunday (albeit in Galveston and not Bolivar), she has resigned her lay membership in the Carmelite order, as well as her membership in the Serra Club, a group that tries to boost the numbers of those joining the priesthood and becoming nuns.

She recalls that one of the black churches in Galveston had been demolished by Ike, but that the people had banded together and rallied and rebuilt their church, and one triumphant day, they were able to hoist a banner that read "Ike knocked us down but the Lord raised us up."

Simpton wanted to make a banner of her own. She says her would read "The Good Lord saveth and the archdiocese taketh away," and she would plant it in the empty lot where a community's spirit once lived.

john.lomax@houstonpress.com

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