Historic church seeks help after Irma

Jesse Hollett
Posted 10/18/17

GREEN COVE SPRINGS — Shortly after the winds subsided from Hurricane Irma on Sept. 11, Rev. Celeste Tisdelle and her husband watched as St. Mary’s Episcopal Church Senior Warden Craig Lee and his …

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Historic church seeks help after Irma


GREEN COVE SPRINGS — Shortly after the winds subsided from Hurricane Irma on Sept. 11, Rev. Celeste Tisdelle and her husband watched as St. Mary’s Episcopal Church Senior Warden Craig Lee and his wife Dana Menk paddled on a kayak into their historic church in Green Cove Springs.

It was dark, and while Menk believed the inside might be dry, she wasn’t certain.

The next day, a parishioner helped her clear debris in front of the church so she could enter the historic structure. It was dry, she recounted with tears in her eyes.

“It was perfect inside,” Tisdelle said. “And I just – it was very moving. It would’ve been disastrous if the church had flooded. I knelt before the alter and thanked God.”

Storm surge brought on by Hurricane Irma had surrounded the 17th century church. The water was so high that, even on four-foot stilts, the church looked as though it had been built in the center of a lake.

The church dodged a catastrophe from the storm. The church, which sits along the banks of the St. Johns River, came within inches from flooding despite the four-foot pilings it sits on.

What the river couldn’t take from the interior, however, it took from the exterior. The river scooped out the air ducts, air conditioning and heating machinery from below the church, and scooped out ductwork from below the church’s river room, connected to the parish hall.

All told, repairs will cost the church $45,000 in insurance deductibles.

The church’s fundraising event kicks off Nov. 7 with a concert from Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra Principal Cellist Alexei Romanenko.

The Episcopal Diocese of Florida has supplied half of the money necessary for immediate repairs. The other half, however, will have to come from fundraising.

“I feel certain that we can raise the funds to restore things to the way they were, but I’m hoping that we can do better than that,” Tisdelle said.

The repairs come at a time when the church had just finished regularly scheduled maintenance on the compound and was gearing up to raise funds to install heating and air in the compound’s parish hall, which becomes an oven in the summertime. The church has estimated those costs to be roughly $40,000.

Repairs to the main church come first, but Tisdelle said the overall goal is to raise $80,000.

It’s a tall order for a small church of about 200 parishioners. To compound matters, this is also stewardship season for St. Mary’s, the time of the year when parishioners tell the church how much they can contribute so the church can work out its budget for the next year.

Because of the hurricane damages, the church has had to rent portable air conditioning units to prevent mildew intrusion. They’re loud and generally not conducive to praying, so service has been held in the parish hall.

Tisdelle said the damages from Hurricane Irma are all part of God’s plan, and said the experience has brought the parishioners closer together as a congregation.

“We see events that occur as blessings,” Tisdelle said. “The first couple of Sundays after the storm, it was very hot in the parish hall and people came together, because we have hope, our faith gives us hope. So, yes, I think it has made us stronger.”

She said she was proud of the solidarity of St. Mary’s parishioners who helped in the initial cleanup after the hurricane. She said many of those who helped had damage of their own to attend to, and yet they donated their time.

“We’re blessed,” she said.


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