By Lois Rogers | Features Editor
Like many Catholics in the coastal sections of Monmouth and Ocean counties, the members of St. Catharine of Siena Parish, Seaside Park, followed a pilgrim trail throughout Advent.
With mandatory evacuation orders lasting eight weeks after Superstorm Sandy lashed the shore, some residents of the small town situated between Barnegat Bay and the Atlantic Ocean, settled in to worship at parishes nearby on the mainland while others, of necessity, moved from one spiritual refuge to another.
Many described the welcomes they received from the other parishes, including St. Justin, Toms River; St. Peter, Point Pleasant Beach, and St. Raphael-Holy Angels, Hamilton, to name but a few, as warm and wonderful.
On Christmas morning, watching a hardy band of 60 or so return at last to celebrate the Nativity of Christ in St. Catharine Church, it was clear there is no place like home.
Indeed, “coming home,” was the phrase parishioners and pastor alike chose to describe how it felt to finally step onto parish ground for the first time post Sandy. It was the phrase that lit their eyes with joy as they walked past the sign outside the church that read simply: St. Catharine of Siena - Christmas Eve 5 p.m., Day 11 a.m.
Some days earlier, word began circulating among displaced residents of this small borough that the utilities might be connected and “we could be back for Christmas,” said Bobbi O’Connor who sat with her husband, Chip, waiting for Mass to begin Christmas morning. “We had real hope that we would have Mass here on Christmas; that we would be home.”
“Being home” was vitally important to Conventual Franciscan Father John Ruffo, pastor of St. Catharine of Siena Parish, who welcomed returning parishioners before the Mass.
Father Ruffo had devoted himself to getting them there as soon as it became clear mandatory evacuation would be lifted for residents shortly before Christmas. It necessitated getting crews in to purge the building of the brackish muck that had settled onto the tile floor when the bay rose to meet the ocean.
It was no easy task, Father Ruffo said. “Workmen started every morning before eight a.m. All of the pews were removed so that the floor could be cleaned up and the contaminants removed,” he said. In fact, on Christmas morning, the second nave, still awaiting some work, was cordoned off.
The effort was definitely worth it, he said. “On Christmas Eve, we had 160 people and they were so happy to be back as are the parishioners here this morning. Being back in the church is a sign of hope,” he said. “It’s a sign that things will get better.”
In his homily, Father Ruffo spoke movingly of the two months that had elapsed since the parish last worshipped as community. “We had Mass on the 28th of October, the day before the storm came and displaced all our peaceful lives.”
Over the two months that followed, he said, the community as a whole found wonderful support from St. Justin Parish which accommodated St. Catharine’s CCD program and not only hosted but joined in St. Catharine’s fourth annual Christmas Carol Festival.
But moving weddings and funerals to other locations added to the sense of displacement, he acknowledged, as did the material losses people suffered which has many “wondering how on earth they will make ends meet.”
Father Ruffo asked them to consider that “every Christmas is different and this one, definitely for so many reasons, is not the same. We are not the same people we were a year ago.”
Joy Amid Change
Weeks of wandering from parish to parish and place to place after Sandy disrupted her life may have taken a toll on Maryann Meneghin.
But to look at her in her berry red sweater as she served as a reader during the Christmas morning Mass, you’d never know it. Her face glowed with happiness as parishioners entered the church and she greeted them with beaming smiles.
After Mass, Meneghin, 70, talked about the three weeks she spent literally “homeless, knocking around from place to place,” staying with friends and relatives after the order came to leave the island. “It was an odyssey for me.”
Her wandering ended when she was able to settle into a rental in one of the co-op villages in the Whiting section of Manchester. And while she’s concerned about how long it will take her to finally get back into her own water damaged premises, being able to attend the parish she sees as her spiritual home provides the nourishment she needs to get through.
Standing with fellow parishioners Pat and John Karnatski as the church emptied out Christmas morning, Meneghin said she had been “praying to God to watch over us, throughout the ordeal that followed the storm.
I don’t have immediate family. My friends and the Church has always been my extended family so coming here Christmas morning definitely felt like coming home.”
The Karnatski’s, who spent their eight week exile with children in Staten Island, echoed that sentiment. “It is wonderful to be back in our church,” said Pat Karnatski. “During our time of turmoil, as Catholics, it’s so important to meet together and support each other.
“And the Christmas Carol Festival in St. Justin was a short but moving experience for us. Many of us didn’t know what had happened to the people we see every week in church,” she said.
“This has helped us to reevaluate our experiences,” John Karnatski said.
All three spoke of the peace, joy and comfort experienced just walking into the building and sharing kisses and hugs with fellow parishioners.
“We’ve formed a deeper bond as community,” Pat Karnatski said. “We’ve gone through the hurricane… We’ve gone through displacement and we’re a family again.”[[In-content Ad]]