St. Francis of Assisi parish returns to renovated sanctuary

April 9, 2019

A Mass of Blessing of the Restored Church at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in Houston celebrated by Auxiliary Bishop George A. Sheltz March 19. Hundreds of parishioners and communities members gathered to celebrate the church’s re-opening after the Kashmere Gardens campus was devastated by Hurricane Harvey in 2017.

HOUSTON — Ever since the day the rain came, just one thing remained consistent at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church: the parish’s weekend Mass celebrations.

The vibrant parish in Houston’s Kashmere Gardens neighborhood was smothered with more than 24 inches of floodwater. Hurricane Harvey’s endless torrential rain pushed nearby Hunting Bayou to overtake the parish’s campus, surging into the church sanctuary, school and parish hall.

In the weeks after the skies cleared and the water slowly seeped back into the bayou, Father Martin Eke, MSP, the parish’s pastor, remained steadfast and faithful in celebrating weekend Mass. Even though the storm had shuttered their church, the community’s faith remained unwavering.
Since the church was no longer safe and habitable, the community first celebrated Mass under the large trees adjacent to the church, and at nearby Our Mother of Mercy Catholic Church, where Daniel Cardinal DiNardo met with St. Francis of Assisi parishioners the Sunday after the storm.

The September heat grew and the parishioners moved under a large white tent. When winter’s first cold snap came, they moved into the parish’s garage facility, which had housed the school’s bus. In 2018, spring quickly turned to summer, and by mid-July, the parish hall — also the school gym and cafeteria — was once again operational for the school’s return and to offer a more spacious and comfortable worship space for the parish community.

The parish did not miss celebrating a single weekend Mass throughout all of this, thanks to Father Eke’s efforts coupled with the tireless parishioner-led volunteer work and coordination to repair the parish grounds.

This massive undertaking to ensure a continuity of faith for the community culminated on March 29, the Solemnity of the Feast of St. Joseph, when Auxiliary Bishop George A. Sheltz celebrated a Mass of Blessing of the Restored Church at the parish’s newly renovated church sanctuary. Bright rays of sunshine from the evening’s sunset streamed into the building as generations of parishioners entered the sanctuary.

At the start of his homily, Bishop Sheltz updated the congregation on Cardinal DiNardo’s improved health after the archbishop suffered a mild stroke March 15. Cardinal DiNardo had been originally scheduled to celebrate the Mass.

Bishop Sheltz told the parishioners that their journey wasn’t unlike that of St. Joseph’s. His life was changed suddenly, when Mary came to him saying she was with child. Then, God came to him in a dream, showed him the light of truth, and inspired him to continue with Mary on her journey with the Infant Jesus.

Like Joseph, the parish was “faced with trials” and “unknown things.” As God did with Joseph, the Lord spoke with the parishioners in unique ways, reminding them that even in their suffering, “that He is good” and would guide them, help them and change their lives, and the lives of those around them, for the better.

You “have gone through a trauma,” Bishop Sheltz said. “You have gone through times when you have said, ‘Where was God then? Where was He?’ And He simply kept giving you things that helped you (sustain) yourself for all this time. You went through the flood. You went through [almost] losing everything on the property. You went through a tent. You went into a lot. You finally got back into the gymnasium.”

“And God was with you through it all,” he said. God had helped the parish to sustain their lives and to move forward and gave them faith to believe that He would not abandon them, Bishop Sheltz said.

The special Mass included a blessing and Sprinkling Rite before the Liturgy of the Word. Father Eke and Bishop Sheltz processed throughout the entire church sanctuary, sprinkling holy water to bless the church walls and fixtures.

While a bulk of the church had been renovated and replaced — the church walls, new waterproofed flooring, a new large crucifix, ambry and baptismal font, elevated HVAC and electrical systems, raised cabinetry, as well as stackable church pew seats, were all new — parts of it remained unchanged, such as the tabernacle, the marble altar, the statuary and special devotional images of the Blessed Mother in a Marian side chapel.

The parish worked extensively with the Archdiocese, said Deanna Ennis, associate director of the Office of Construction and Preventative Maintenance. Though much work was funded by FEMA grants, which required intense follow through and communication, she credited the strong efforts of the resilient community for the beautiful renovation experience that drew many officials and parishioners closer together in the process.

On the other side of the campus, the school had also flooded. The rectory, which was the most recently built parish structure and elevated, did not. The school’s administrative offices, science lab, library, teacher work spaces that were once filled with muddy brown water were bright and ready for students in August 2018 to welcome the new school year.

After the Mass, St. Francis of Assisi School Principal Tawana Fulmer said she had been moved to tears several times during the Mass. Several students also attended the Mass.

Fulmer said the long journey was an affirmation that she was “committed to being faith driven” as “a model of Christ,” for her students and parish community.

“Sometimes those days are hard,” she said. “But when you keep praying, you’re reminded of what your commitment is, and my commitment to Christ.”

The students returned to the new church at the start of the month right before Ash Wednesday. She said her students were thrilled to be back “where it all started,” and interact with Father Eke during his homilies.

“We have arrived and it feels really good,” she said. “It feels really good to be home.”

At the end of his homily, Bishop Sheltz encouraged the St. Francis of Assisi parish to continue to be strength to each other, just as Mary and Joseph were in times of difficulty.

“As you all walk together in faith, you give one another strength and courage to continue to do the work the Lord wants you to do, bringing the good news to everyone who comes this way [and to be] the witness of His love in this world,” Bishop Sheltz said. He called the parish to be “the witnesses as Joseph, Mary and St. Francis of Assisi [were] of the Good News.”