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FL shards turn to treasure

Residents on this fragile island are transforming Hurricane Charley's rubble into a treasure.

BY SUSAN KIM | FT. MYERS BEACH, Fla. | December 8, 2004

"We've salvaged some history here."

—Gary Miller

Residents on this fragile island are transforming Hurricane Charley's rubble into a treasure.

Before Charley hit, a "dolphin window" - as it was affectionately called - caught the eye of everyone strolling past. The 11-foot diameter, circular stained glass window was the focal point at Chapel by the Sea Presbyterian Church, and had become a part of the island's history.

In August, Charley destroyed the window and caused more than $1 million in damages to the church.

"We found a lot of shards from the window," said Gary Miller, a volunteer from Peace River Presbytery who has helping the church recover. "And now a church member is making little sun-catchers from them. And little pendants - we found a local silversmith who would create necklaces from the shards for us for a nominal fee."

Now people are purchasing the sun-catchers and necklaces, said Miller, and proceeds are going toward ongoing hurricane recovery.

The little treasures are a huge hit, he said. "We've salvaged some history here. We have created an heirloom. They've met with a great reception."

Creating treasures from glass shards is symbolic of the church's ongoing comeback from this hurricane season, mused Miller. "Some people felt a bigger loss about that window than they did about the church pews," he said. "And now this is giving something back to the congregation. It's a little thing, but when you're trying to show a congregation that there is a way to recover, everything helps that emotional state."

The church has some 400 members, and most of them live on Ft. Myers Beach.

Hurricane Charley not only destroyed the dolphin window, but also caused more than $1 million in wind and water damage to the sanctuary and fellowship hall.

Residents weren't allowed back on the island for at least 10 days after Charley hit - and sea air and wind blew through the gaping holes in the building, causing even more damage and fostering mold growth. Glass shards blew throughout the sanctuary, into the carpet and upholstery.

Damage to the drywall and roof made the sanctuary unusable. But the congregation hopes to be back in its sanctuary in time for Christmas Eve services.

The comeback of their church has meant a lot to the islanders, said Miller. "A great many were personally impacted. And that meant the church leaders were dealing with the church facility's physical needs as well as the property needs of parishioners. People needed work crews and they needed emotional counseling."

To add to the maelstrom, the week before the storm, the church's pastor went on leave - permanently. The church is still without a permanent pastor, but with support from the presbytery and from volunteers like Miller, residents feel confident it will recover.

While the sanctuary was being repaired, congregants went on worshiping in their fellowship hall. "They've been able to accommodate a little over 200 people every Sunday morning," said Miller, "so they haven't really lost their services."

But it has been a long haul, he admitted, from sitting in temporary chairs to simply missing the sight of the beautiful dolphin window.

Miller - who is part of a task force convened by the Peace River Presbytery to aid in long-term recovery - said he's been at Chapel By the Sea every day since a week after Charley hit. An elder at his home church - Cypress Lake Presbyterian Church in Ft. Myers - Miller is modest about his leadership: "I'm just the guy down the street," he said.

The church's recovery has been complicated by slow insurance proceedings. So far the church has received $49,000 in payments. But the elders in the church have extended loans in order to start repairs, said Miller, and church leaders keep hoping insurance payments will be forthcoming. "Lately the claims adjuster seems to be in a more conciliatory mood," he said. "But we have no assurances about anything. We don't know if we'll get 50 cents, or the whole claim, or nothing."

With funds and technical assistance from Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, the Peace River Presbytery is part of a growing web of faith-based recovery teams now helping thousands of people across Florida.

And now a new carpet has been delivered to Chapel by the Sea. And new chairs will come next week. "Initially, the congregation needed a lot of reassurance there was still going to be a church here. There was so much uncertainty," said Miller.

But more people are gaining a sense of peace about what has happened, said Miller. "It's been a gradual process," he said. "We have come from a difficult and dark place but we are starting to see daylight now."

It's still a mixed bag of emotions for everybody, agreed Neil Callahan, clerk of session at the church and a Ft. Myers Beach resident. "Just getting back into the sanctuary is going to be uplifting for everybody."

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Related Links:

Peace River Presbytery Web site

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