By Emily Drooby and Paula Katinas
WOODSIDE — When Father Christopher O’Connor hears that the weather forecast calls for rain, he says to himself, “Oh, no!”
One can’t blame him for that reaction, especially after what he and his parishioners at St. Mary’s Winfield Church went through on Sept. 1 when the remnants of Hurricane Ida caused a rainstorm so severe, it flooded the lower church, destroyed the parish Adoration Chapel and a faith formation classroom and drowned church pews in 10 feet of water.
The painstaking work of repairing and rebuilding the lower church is expected to cost more than $1 million.
Insurance will cover the costs but that doesn’t mean the headaches are over for Father O’Connor, the church’s pastor. His days are filled with meetings with insurance adjusters, contractors, and representatives from Catholic Charities Brooklyn and Queens. “As pastor, I’m the one responsible for everything overall,” he said.
The cleanup is still going on — more than a week after the storm. “Ninety-nine percent of the water is out. There still is a little bit of water because it’s seeping out from the walls,” Father O’Connor said.
The chapel walls had to be torn down. The demolition work started on Sept. 8.
“That was hard. I think that was the first time I got a little emotional,” Father O’Connor admitted. “I try to be on an even keel. But when I went to the chapel and they were tearing down the walls, it was hard because we just opened it in February. A lot of time and effort went into it. And prayer.”
The Adoration Chapel had opened Feb. 1 — exactly seven months to the day before the storm.
The parish is determined to rebuild the lower church and the chapel, as well as the faith formation classroom, which was used by Confirmation students.
“The contractor who built the classroom and the chapel is coming back. He already knows he’s doing it again,” Father O’Connor said.
The first step is to complete the massive post-storm cleanup. Among other tasks, workers will have to make sure all of the moisture is out so that mold doesn’t get a chance to set in. The boiler is probably salvageable, he said. Electrical switches and outlets will be replaced.
“I’m a fixer by nature, so I just plan. Some instruction has been given to every contractor on what we need to go forward. A lot of the work was new, so it’s really just replacing what we just did,” Father O’Connor said.
The storm has left scars in the form of terrifying memories. The water was so powerful, it literally knocked down a brick wall underneath a staircase leading to the lower church. The street outside the church, 48th Avenue, became a river, lifting cars up and carrying them with the current. At one point, the NYPD sent in a diver to check the cars to make sure no one was inside.
Parishioners have offered help in the form of manpower and monetary donations. Father O’Connor, in turn, is concerned about them.
“Some of our parishioners are homeless right now. Their basement apartments were flooded. I know of at least three families that are looking for a place and there may be a fourth,” he said.
Catholic Charities is working with the displaced families. And Father O’Connor has been calling real estate agents.
Father O’Connor is confident the church will be able to rebuild. “Jesus will help us,” he said.
A massive cleanup is also taking place at other churches and schools in the diocese.
St. Bartholomew Church, Elmhurst, sustained flooding to its chapel as well as to the rectory.
The gymnasium at St. Bartholomew Catholic Academy was flooded, according to Principal Denise Gonzalez.
“The gym floor is still wet,” she said on Sept. 13, nearly two weeks after the storm. “We have to air it out to prevent mols”
Gonzalez said repairs can begin once all the moisture is out of the gym.
Father Rick Beuther, pastor of St. Bartholomew, was on the phone with officials from the diocese on the night of the storm, Gonzalez said. “Father Rick was great. He called the diocese and the insurance company came right away to take pictures,” she said.
Congresswoman Grace Meng, who represents Elmhurst, visited the church and the academy Monday morning to get a first-hand look at the cleanup.
Meng also visited with an eighth-grade class.
“She explained FEMA to them and how it works,” Gonzalez said, referring to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
They’re fundraising for anything not covered by insurance. Donations can be made on their give central account here: GiveCentral which can also be found on their main website: www.stmarysofwinfield.com