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Churches rebuild, relocate, evaluate changing community needs

Residences, schools and businesses were not the only buildings destroyed and damaged by Hurricane Katrina. Places of worship were devastated too. Faith communities have spent the past three years rebuilding or repairing facilities as they evaluated options, locations and their service to the community’s changing needs

Some are following patterns of population north of Interstate 10. They also hope to avoid future hurricanes by relocating their physical buildings away from the water’s edge.

Weighty decision

However, Gulfport’s St. Peter’s by-the-Sea Episcopal Church chose to stay true to its name and remain in view of the water at its downtown location. Building committee chairman Marvin Koury says it was a weighty decision.

“After the storm, nobody knew at first what to do. We survived the first year dealing with our personal lives,” he said. “Then we met and prayed about it trying to figure out what to do. We’ve always been a downtown church. We minister to downtown and will remain a downtown church.”

At the time of Katrina, the church building was only four and a half years old and suffered $2 million in damages. Built in traditional Anglican style, architect Baron Toups won awards for the design. Repairs included expanding the vestry, chapel, altar guild room and parish hall and upgrading the sound system. Parishioners were happy to celebrate Christmas 2007 back in their church.

“How often do you get to build and then rebuild so soon after, getting to change the mistakes you made?” Koury wonders. “We saw a need here and chose to stay. We plan on it being a lifetime investment.”

Although St. Peter’s pulls worshippers from a wide area, he said they focus on the downtown area and plan to have programs for people working and living there.

‘We lost our history, everything’

It’s a different story for First Presbyterian Church of Gulfport. The Church’s financial secretary, Sandy Litzinger, says the building, constructed in 1953, was a total loss, including records.

“We lost our history; everything, there was not a door or window left,” she said. “We had to laugh when an adjustor asked for someone with a key to meet him at the church. Our people have handled it very well for the most part. We realize a church is not the building.”

Since late September 2005, the congregation has been meeting at the Bayou View Elementary School gymnasium. They decided the cost of insurance and rebuilding on the beach would be cost prohibitive. The beachfront property was sold to a developer and the church purchased 11 acres at the corner of O’Neal Road and Highway 605, an extension of Cowan-Lorraine Road north of I-10. They are about ready to break ground and hope to somehow incorporate the steeple and bell tower salvaged from the old building. It will take a year to construct the building.

“We have a good number of members who live in that area and the majority live in the Bayou View area although we have some from Long Beach, Ocean Springs, Diamondhead and all over,” Litzinger said. “We’re happy to be together and not all that worried about a building.”

First Presbyterian had a final ceremony, a service of remembrance, at the old site the day before demolition of the wreckage began. Litzinger says it was bittersweet but members are focused on looking forward.

‘Goodness and guidance’

Gulfport’s First Baptist Church also relocated north of the interstate on Highway 605 and recently celebrated the first service in the new facility, an investment in land and building of $18.5 million. The downtown facility was a total loss, estimated at $12 million. For three years, the congregation worshiped at Gulfport High School.

“It certainly has been a journey these past three years, but God has helped us understand his goodness and guidance afresh,” says Pastor Chuck Register. “Relocation was a topic we had been discussing before Katrina. There’s a residential corridor with a lot of young families along I-10. Katrina coming ashore gave us the opportunity to step back and look at it.”

The completed building is phase one of four phases that upon completion will be two and a half times the size of the old facility. It is designed to hold over 2000 people in worship at one time. It is also meant to be used seven days a week, ministering to the family clusters in this growth area.

Before Katrina, the Catholic Diocese of Biloxi had a total of 57 parish churches and missions. Of those, 11 were destroyed or gutted and 10 were severely damaged.

“There have been meetings about looking to move farther inland,” said diocese spokeswoman Shirley Henderson. “Parishes are weighing the pros and cons to decide what to do. A lot of people have not returned here to live.”

St. Clare Church in Waveland was a total loss. Parishioners are meeting in a Quonset hut on the property and a groundbreaking has been held for a multi-purpose building. “Others will do that too for a starting place,” she said. “They can have liturgies there and a place to get together.”

The parish of totally destroyed St. Paul’s in Pass Christian has consolidated with Our Lady of Lourdes to form Holy Family Parish. In Biloxi, St. Louis and St. John parishes have come together to form Blessed Seelos Parish while St. Michael’s on Highway 90 will be rebuilt. St. Thomas in Long Beach is moving ahead with plans to rebuild at their same beachfront location. Our Lady of the Gulf in Bay St. Louis has been repaired but the Bay’s lovely old St. Joseph Mission was wiped out.

Henderson points out that even St. Stephen in DeLisle, even though it was not destroyed, has bought property just outside Diamondhead to build. “Their folks have moved north, too,” she said.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynn Lofton at llofton656@aol.com.

About Lynn Lofton

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