Father Michael Tracey is sitting in a garden chair facing the ocean just a short distance away. He has just performed an early morning baptism.
Tracey was due to follow this first among Catholic sacraments with a funeral, but it was switched to another church at the last minute.
It’s hard not to think that if the deceased had a say in it, the funeral Mass would have been held at its original venue.
Perhaps the grieving family hadn’t heard the news. Our Lady of the Gulf’s solid wood doors have been opened for full business again.
And behind them is a place of worship that would not go unnoticed even in the likes of fabulous Florence or sumptuous Sienna.
Equally solid doors, even when firmly shut, were not able to hold back the raging seas when Hurricane Katrina came knocking just over fifteen months ago.
Our Lady of the Gulf sits as its name suggests. It’s not inland, or perched on a hillside.
The shoreline of the Gulf of Mexico is only about a hundred yards away and that was no distance at all when a wall of water over 30 feet high reared itself and surged inland on the night that Katrina unloaded mercilessly on the states of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.
In some places around here the water penetrated as much as four miles in from the coastline.
Little surprise then that the storm surge did unholy damage to Fr. Tracy’s church. It devastated the interior leaving little or nothing of the flooring, the seating and the electrical wiring.
A year ago, Christmas was a greatly reduced affair in Bay St. Louis. For one thing the hurricane had scattered many of Fr. Tracey’s parishioners to, well, the four winds.
When the remaining faithful came together for Christmas Mass they did so in a church where the paint was peeling, the roof leaking and the walls were bleeding with the damp. Some of the floor space was still roped off and there were just a few pews and chairs.
And the church’s impressive front doors had been reduced to half doors, not unlike those in an old cowboy town saloon, Tracy, a native of Killawalla near Westport, County Mayo, told the Echo at the time.
Nevertheless, Mass was said three times at Our Lady of the Gulf last Christmas, one of them on Christmas Eve, the other two on Christmas Day.
Tracey described the threefold celebration in those waning days of 2005 as “electrifying.”
This time around it promises to be a little less jury-rigged, at least in terms of the surroundings.
“The work of restoration is now ninety five percent complete,” Tracey said in a conversation with the Echo on the garden chair.
“We got a new wooden floor from a school in Hattiesburg,” Tracey said in reference to a town about sixty miles due north of Bay St. Louis where he spent a dozen years doing parish work in the 1970s and 80s.
“The floor actually dates back to 1910 and it looks great in the church. And the new pews came from Orlando in Florida,” he said.
Katrina very roughly caused roughly $3.5 million in damage to the church and a surrounding parish complex that includes three schools.
The parish rectory was completely washed away. Even now, all that remains is the concrete foundation where a couple of FEMA trailers remind visitors of what is still an all too familiar reality for people along the battered Gulf coast.
In one corner of the concrete foundation there is a table and chair while nearby sit a couple of religious statues. Overhead, there is nothing but blue sky.
“The insurance has covered us up to $2.1 million. We have been trying to bridge the gap raising funds around the country and in Ireland,” Tracey said of the rebuilding project.
“This Christmas will be different than last year,” he said.
“Last year, we celebrated Christmas Mass in a church with a plywood floor and a large hole in the middle of it.
“This year, we will celebrate Christmas in an almost completely refurbished church. We will celebrate the fact that more people have returned to the area and that people are more upbeat because there is progress, even though, at times, slow,” Tracey added.
“And we will celebrate the progress we have made and continue to hope for the future rebuilding. Christmas is the season of hope and we continue to hope for a full recovery from Hurricane Katrina,” he said.