Saturday, April 15, 2023
Jim Davis – Florida Catholic
FORT LAUDERDALE | Barely a half-week after record-setting rainfall, St. Jerome Church is planning Sunday Mass.
Last week, floodwater swamped the school and church buildings up to a foot deep, and the parking lot became a thigh-high lake. But after intensive cleaning and drying by a recovery company, the church has announced plans for Mass this weekend.
Just as its pastor, Father Joseph Maalouf, said over the weekend – even as heavy trucks were still trying to suck up muddy rainwater.
“We trust in God,” he said laconically on Tuesday, April 18, 2023.
But he also gave high marks to Servpro, the clean-up company that has worked about 11 hours a day to rehabilitate the campus.
On Tuesday, about 40 Servpro workers were swarming the church and school, wiping pews, spraying kneelers, running dehumidifying machines, putting plastic on parts of walls.
An assessment team from the archdiocese inspected the church and school on Monday. The half-dozen officials came away with a “good news, bad news” report, according to Jim Rigg, who was part of the team.
“The bad news is there was flooding throughout the building, from a half-inch to 12 inches,” said Rigg, superintendent of Catholic schools. “The good news is that we believe we can safely reopen the school by May 1. Maybe not every space, but certainly all classrooms.”
On Thursday, April 13, Father Maalouf waded with clean-up specialist Fernando Peña through a three-foot lake overflowing the parking lot and school fields.
Peña, operations manager for the Servpro clean-up company of Naples, pointed to a spot high on the thighs of his rubber wading boots. “The water was up to here,” he said.
Several inches of water also flooded the church and the first floor of the rectory, although Father Maalouf’s quarters on the second floor were left dry. The water crept into the school buildings as well, damaging desks, books, pews – “everything on the floor,” Father Maalouf said. The church and school also lost power, he added.
Earlier on Tuesday, the school’s teachers were allowed back into the classrooms to fetch instructional materials, with boxes provided by Servpro. Plans call for virtual classes starting today.
Father Maalouf, who livestreamed Mass from the chapel last weekend, announced regular onsite worship will resume with vigil Mass at 5 p.m. Saturday, April 22. Sunday Mass will start at 10 a.m. in English and 11:30 a.m. in Spanish, then 1 p.m. in Chinese.
Rigg, in his second year as head of education at the archdiocese, said the main tasks for the school include replacing the flooring, furniture and instructional materials that may have stood on or near the floor.
Even if St. Jerome’s 205 students can return as early as May 1, some areas likely won’t be available, including the lunchroom plus a Pre-K classroom and an artificial turf playground. However, the lunchroom should be ready, Rigg said.
Starting today (April 19), the school will use the Google Classroom system, a virtual learning arrangement developed during the COVID-19 lockdown.
This morning, school officials scheduled a “drive-by” for parents of elementary students. The parents were to be given boxes of materials to assist the kids in the virtual classes. Older students can continue to use their Chromebook computers.
Around the archdiocese, St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Fort Lauderdale was the only other school that reported damage, Rigg said. Staffers there pulled up wet carpet in some rooms, and students will have to attend class on bare concrete floors for now. But the school will stay open.
Rigg said he was “impressed by the hard work and dedication of the team at St. Jerome. They’re putting the children first.”
Principal Tara Marino said that about a quarter of St. Jerome’s 32 staff and faculty were coping with their own storm-related losses. One was staying with friends because of a storm-damaged home, she said. Another was staying at an Air BnB.
“They lost everything,” Marino said.
She said the workers were encouraged by praying together Tuesday morning under a gazebo at the center of campus.
“This is a challenge, but it’s brought the community together,” Marino said. “It takes something like this to show how blessed you are.”
No one has yet computed the price of the restoration. It would include not only new carpets, planking and drywall, but whatever books and chairs were left on the floor. The pews may also need to be replaced.
“I don’t really care about that,” Father Maalouf said of the cost. “We need to get it done. People need a place to worship God.”
Note: This story has been updated since it was originally published April 15, 2023.
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