By Peter Finney Jr. Clarion Herald Commentary
We’ve been there, which makes the journey of recovery now facing St. Dominic Church in Panama City, Florida, both a history lesson and a teachable moment, filled with grace.
When Hurricane Michael, a near-Category 5 storm packing winds of 155 mph, slammed into the Florida panhandle in October, it created a 40-mile wide swath of destruction for hundreds of miles in its path.
“It was basically like a 40-mile-wide tornado,” said Father Michael Nixon, the 36-year-old pastor who was ordained in 2010 but never learned anything about hurricane theology in the seminary. “The devastation was just incredible. No, there was no training for this.”
Even before Hurricane Michael, St. Dominic was a blue-collar parish of 1,500 families, serving active and retired military from the nearby Tyndall Air Force Base, which was heavily damaged but may be rebuilt within the next three years.
There are pockets of poverty around the church. Many parishioners lived in trailer parks, which Michael destroyed. Homes that sustained catastrophic damage are now draped in blue tarps, awaiting insurance and honest contractors.
“We’ve seen some terrible things – even weeks after the storm, people are still living in those homes,” Father Nixon said.
St. Dominic Church lost its religious education building and parish hall. The parish office and rectory still are standing.
“We gutted those to the studs,” Father Nixon said. “That’s my new favorite phrase.”
The church, which sustained major roof damage, seems structurally sound enough to be “salvageable,” but Father Nixon said the long-term goal is not simply to restore buildings but to rebuild in a way “to further the parish’s mission.”
In the weeks following the storm, without any serviceable buildings but with an inviting parking lot, St. Dominic and Catholic Charities fed and gave out supplies to 72,000 people.
Rays of hope have begun to break through. When Deacon Phil Doolen and Father Billy O’Riordan of St. Ann Church in Metairie heard about St. Dominic’s plight, they went to parishioners on the weekend of Nov. 3 – when the Gospel reading was The Widow’s Mite.
During Katrina, St. Ann had sustained flooding and received $25,000 from St. Raymond of Peñafort Parish in Mount Prospect, Illinois.
“It’s our time to pay it forward,” Father O’Riordan told parishioners, letting them know they could help through a second collection on Nov. 25, the feast of Christ the King.
Father O’Riordan reminded parishioners over the next several weeks about St. Dominic, and they responded by contributing $30,000, which Father O’Riordan, Deacon Doolen, Father Vincent Nguyen and office manager Debbie Sommers personally delivered to Father Nixon five days before Christmas. The St. Ann Home & School Club also raised $800.
“We’ve been hearing a lot of different things from different parishes, which has been phenomenal,” Father Nixon said. “But for them to drive this check over to us, that’s what took us by surprise. Anyone who’s been through a natural disaster knows just how quickly the country forgets about it. The fact that they came to Panama City to see it with their own eyes, that was amazing.”
What the St. Ann team saw brought tears to their eyes. Since St. Dominic Church is unusable, a large white tent, seating about 500 in folding chairs, was erected for Mass.
“It’s our big tent revival,” Father Nixon said, laughing.
When it was first installed, St. Dominic’s temporary worship space was fairly pedestrian – rust-stained and a little leaky.
But, just before Christmas, the tent company delivered a gift of art.
“We had a surviving stained-glass window in the church, and they took a picture of it and printed it onto a vinyl sheet and installed it behind the altar,” Father Nixon.
The glorified Christ reigns behind the altar.
“This Christmas brought a new level of identification for us with Joseph, Mary and Jesus – not really having anything but God showing up,” Father Nixon said. “This was a taste of what Joseph and Mary felt and what Jesus entered into.”
Those wishing to help can go to saintdominicpc.com. Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at email@example.com.