For those recovering from Hurricane Sandy’s wrath, the past year has seemed like the blink of an eye.
St. Mary Star of the Sea parish in Far Rockaway – one of the hardest hit parishes in the storm – held a commemoration and healing Mass on Tuesday evening, Oct. 29, the one-year anniversary of Sandy coming ashore.
“How wonderful it is to come together to thank God for His generosity and to see the healing that our hearts and minds, bodies and souls need,” said Father Fulgencio Gutierrez, pastor of the combined parish of St. Mary Star of the Sea and St. Gertrude. The worship site at St. Gertrude, also in Far Rockaway, has still yet to reopen.
After the storm, thousands of Sandy victims flocked to both church buildings, where relief centers were established. The churches were virtually isolated with no electricity in the storm’s immediate aftermath, but Father Gutierrez said he was impressed that volunteers came anyway to help distribute food and supplies to those in need.
“We can spend more time speaking about the destruction from Sandy, but we can also spend time speaking about the generosity and the kindness of so many New Yorkers and brothers and sisters who came to help us after the storm,” he said.
Of the 1,200 parishioners at St. Mary-St. Gertrude, over 60 percent are Spanish-speaking, including many undocumented immigrants. Over 400 families participated in the Disaster Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (D-SNAP) – where they received aid ranging from $700-900 – but this was the only program assisting these victims, since those who were undocumented could not participate in the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) program.
These families instead turned to their parish, which Father Gutierrez said helped them pay their rent and provide clothing for their children.
“Thank God we are alive, because it was really terrible,” said Evelyn Odia, a parishioner at St. Mary’s for the past five years. “The church was there for me particularly. They didn’t make me feel the impact of Sandy.”
Even without electricity, Father Gutierrez said he decided to celebrate Mass at St. Mary’s every day since he wanted to ensure that the hardest-hit victims would not lose hope. In his bilingual homily, he spoke of the Biblical passage in which the disciples ask Jesus to calm the storm.
“We too have been hit by a huge storm that damaged many things,” Father Gutierrez said. “Jesus was awake to the generosity of so many brothers and sisters, so many volunteers who came to help you and me and especially those who lost everything. Their actions are the actions of Jesus calming the storms as He did in the gospel. For everything that is good comes from God.”
Through it all, the power of prayer allowed those affected by the storm to soldier on. Marcia Forbes Bennett, a parishioner at St. Mary’s for the past 20 years, said the church was her home away home, since the basement and first floor of her residence were entirely wiped out by the storm surge.
“We had to get back to some semblance of normalcy when it came to our parish,” she said. “So we made sure that on the weekends we would come over and we would come to church. The church has been very good. Father Gutierrez has been tremendous in his support to all the parishioners who were impacted, and the people have been quite generous. So we’re pleased. We’re happy with our community, and we’re blessed.”
Even though her family is still rebuilding one year later, she said she never felt alone through this process.
“God’s always there,” she said. “What has seen us through is the belief that in everything, we give Him thanks, we give Him praise, and in everything there is good. The outpouring of people’s support – the love that was shown – it made you feel that you belonged.”
As the recovery process continues, Father Gutierrez said he would continue to pray for the families who are still out of their homes. Despite what his parish went through, he said the reliance on the hand of God has led to physical and spiritual healing.
“Out of destruction, God created goodness; out of darkness, light,” he said. “Nothing is impossible with God. … Para Dios, nada es imposible.”