Our Mother of Mercy
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.