Reflection: Superstorm Sandy — A Time of Beatitude

Stephen Kluge, OFM Features

In October 2012, Superstorm Sandy caused extensive damage to Long Beach Island, N.J., a barrier island on the Atlantic Ocean, home to the Province’s St. Francis of Assisi Parish. Friars struggled to minister to parishioners scattered across the coast in the months after the storm. In part one of a reflection, Stephen Kluge, OFM, recounts his experience with the storm and his time as a pastor without a church. Part two will be published in the June 11 issue of HNP Today.

Before the storm arrived, we heard rumors that Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey was going to declare an order of mandatory evacuation for all barrier islands along the sea front of the Atlantic Ocean. Our maintenance crew was already preparing: parish and community center vehicles were moved to a parking lot on the mainland. Smaller items were stored inside buildings or tied down. When the order finally came, I felt a sense of relief. Instead of wondering what we should do, we were told: evacuate on Sunday.

Since there is only one bridge to get on and off the 18-mile-long island, and since many of our parishioners drive onto the island for Mass, the decision was made to cancel the Sunday Masses. Because none of the parish buildings are considered an evacuation center, the sisters and friars would obey the governor’s order. We all had somewhere off the island to go. It was an easy decision to leave when ordered to, because we did not want to put emergency personnel in danger if we need to be rescued.

I spent most of Saturday deciding what I should take, as I was going to leave immediately after the vigil Mass. The friary checkbook, important papers, friary directory, and my passport, along with passes to get back onto the island, went in one small suitcase. Into another, I packed personal items: breviary, Bible, a favorite family photo, my computer, cell phone and charger, and enough clothes and personal hygiene products to get me through (at most, I thought) four days. Hadn’t Hurricane Irene the previous year taught us that after three days of inconvenience we would return home and be back to normal?

Mass attendance, as expected, was low. I urged those who came to tell friends that Sunday Masses were canceled, and to follow the governor’s order. After locking the church, and taking the collection with me, I filled my car with gas and headed off the island. The hour and 15-minute drive west to the Poor Clare’s monastery in Chesterfied, N.J. was filled with prayers as I listened to weather reports on the radio.

On Sunday, after presiding at Mass for the sisters, I stayed near the television, watching the winds get stronger and the ocean waves grow angrier, and then seeing the first signs of flooding. I made calls on my cell phone and sent out e-mails. The Poor Clares provided great comfort, and joining them in prayer gave me the sense that I was doing something. Of course, I wondered whether we had made the right decision to leave, and I was troubled that the friars and sisters were now scattered around New Jersey. While all around and within me was chaotic, the rhythm of the Poor Clare’s lifestyle was comforting. Life in the monastery continued as usual, no matter what was happening outside.

I don’t remember when or where the superstorm made landfall, when the lights went out or when my cell phone and computer stopped working. But I do remember feeling completely cut off from all those I loved: family who lived on the coast, the friars and sisters, parish and center coworkers, and my parishioners. I felt totally helpless. When not joining the Poor Clares in their daily schedule, I couldn’t sit still. I personified the wind howling outside. I felt like the trees shaking in the storm. All I could do was watch and pray that the damage wouldn’t be too great and that everyone was off the island and safe.

I don’t remember when, after the storm, the power came back. I do remember trying to make some phone calls: getting through was hit or miss.

Pulling Together
After the storm, the parish’s director of music sent an encouraging email to coworkers and members of the choir. This was a wake-up call: as pastor, it was my job to encourage those who were hurting. At last, I found something I could do. And so began a daily “ferverino” that developed into the St. Francis Parish Facebook page. Those encouraging messages became daily Gospel reflections.

I knew I had to get closer to the parish. Since we were not allowed on the island, I drove to a local high school being used as an emergency shelter. While I couldn’t see the people being taken care of, I did find several parishioners serving as volunteers. I also saw the executive director of the St. Francis Center, who had been offered space in the parish center of St. Mary’s of the Pines in Manahawkin, N.J.

Two days after Superstorm Sandy made landfall, most of St. Francis Center’s social outreach programs were up and running on the mainland in a building owned by the county. The director invited me to stay with her and I jumped at the chance. I returned to Chesterfield, told the sisters my plans, and headed back to… not home, but familiar territory. I was now a pastor without a church who didn’t know where most of his parishioners were or how they made out in the storm.

Not only was I pastor of St. Francis Parish, but I was also guardian of the friary. I was responsible to protect and provide for the community life of the two men I lived with. My greatest concern was finding more permanent housing for the friars and sisters, since we didn’t know when we would get back to the island.

The first Sunday after the storm, thanks to the kindness of the pastor and people of St. Mary’s of the Pines, St. Francis celebrated our first Mass together. As the parishioners arrived, there was much hugging and crying. The church was packed with people coming from far away. With a small remnant of the choir, the director of music began the opening song.

In the vestibule waiting to process in I broke down: tears streaming down my face. Wearing our own vestments, with our parish’s San Damiano processional cross leading the way, Mass began. All I remember of that Mass is the opening line of my homily. “The storm has shown me that I had forgotten how much I love you.” After Mass, more hugging and crying, two women invited many to their home for a small reception.

These women were the answer to many prayers, for they found the friars housing off the island in a community that was very damaged by the storm. They also housed one of the friars for some time, as well as one of the sisters for the duration of our time off the island. Every Sunday after Mass, they continued to provide refreshment and community in their home for many.

‘St. Francis on the Go’
My days were spent going to our space in St. Mary’s Parish Center and trying not to get in the way. We spent the day traveling with one of our counselors to the island, delivering water and snacks to workers cleaning out their homes. We called this “St. Francis on the Go.” We helped the National Guard, who were very kind in helping us, bring the food in the food pantry to the mainland. We were allowed in the St. Francis Center to retrieve documents, files and computers, so parish and center business could go on.

The most difficult decision I had to make was to lay off most of the parish staff. With no collections coming in, no space to hold parish events or programs, and few attendees, I had no choice. I knew most of these people and their homes were damaged just as much as the parish, and that this decision would add to their misery. But these “saints of God” bore this cross with grace and understanding. Many continued to volunteer their time and talents as they filed for unemployment and looked for work.

Donations began to come in from all over the United States. Most monies received helped those displaced or damaged by the storm. Some was dedicated for rebuilding the church. No money was collected or used for salaries.

We heard rumors that people were looting homes and businesses that were damaged or unoccupied. We heard the National Guard and local police had orders to “shoot to kill.” There was no official word as to when we would be able to get back home, only rumors.

We were given a day to go back into our homes to retrieve more items that we needed for a much longer exile. “Grab and Go,” we called it. The traffic getting onto the island was miles long. The streets were covered with sand, houses missing or tilting on their foundations or pilings. Piles of people’s possessions began lining the streets, waiting for sanitation workers to remove them. The friary sustained only minor damage: three feet of water in the basement. Most everything in the basement needed to be thrown out.

Our parish has four churches throughout the island. I visited the main church, which sustained the most damage. Several feet of salt water had destroyed the piano, the flooring, and our safe. Three feet of drywall had been gutted. New electrical work was needed. Pews had been ripped up but were able to be salvaged, and our new organ was damaged. To this day, I not only see this, but smell this as well. I noticed that all the windows in the church were opened and discovered that our director of maintenance had somehow gotten onto the island the day after the storm and opened the windows to prevent mold. His foresight and the sight of our damaged church brought me to tears.

Coming Home
By the third week, though most of the island still had no electricity or gas, we celebrated our first Sunday Mass in our church in Surf City: one Mass per weekend was all we needed, since most of our parishioners were still dispersed. Daily Mass, which we had offered in our rented house, began the following Monday. Despite the destruction and damage, life continued. We had baptisms and funerals. We shared a Thanksgiving dinner with our neighbors on the mainland. We prayed and we waited.

More and more people began to return. People we hadn’t seen since the storm made landfall began attending Mass again. Finally, we got word that the friars and sisters could return to the friary and convent. The Wednesday before Christmas, we cleaned the rented house, packed the cars and drove over the bridge to the friary. The building housing the parish offices and community center reopened on Jan. 2, 2013.

The main church wouldn’t open until June 2013 and, even then, there was still work to be done. But with our wonderful maintenance staff leading the way, the entire congregation processed into the church for the first Mass on June 14. Although repairs to the church were not complete, we had returned home — even if the home we returned to was not completely the home we had left.

 Fr. Stephen was pastor of St. Francis of Assisi Parish from 2006 to 2014. The second part of his reflection will appear in the June 11 issue of HNP Today.