God Was In The Midst Of It All

A Surge of despair and hope for the parish of St. Michaels and All Angels

Update: On Sunday, December 24, 2024, the congregation of St. Michaels and All Angels held their first worship service in their main worship space following 15 months of recovery and repairs to their church property damaged by Hurricane Ian. Below, read their story of despair and hope, written by Sue Van Oss. 

After the eye of Hurricane Ian crossed over Sanibel, covering the entire island in a surge of flood water that left grey muck and utter devastation, a couple of people asked us, “where was God?” Our response was God was in the midst of it; God was with us in the storm, and God remains with us in the aftermath. 

My husband, Bill Van Oss, is Rector of St. Michael and All Angels on Sanibel Island, and I serve as the church’s Director of Digital Communications and Christian Formation. We arrived at St. Michael’s during the height of the pandemic in September 2020 and helped the parish navigate what we believed was its greatest challenge. Never would we have imagined there could have been anything worse, until September 28, 2022. 

We evacuated the island the afternoon before the storm made landfall. Taking a few days’ worth of clothes, we thought we would be returning to our home shortly after the storm passed. Listening to the weather radio and watching the winds blow from the condo we were staying at in Fort Myers, we quickly realized this would not be the case. Once it passed, we walked to a nearby hospital to try and get a wifi signal. As we experienced the anxiety and fear firsthand, our urgency grew to get to an area that had electricity, phone, and internet so we could start the process of accounting for all our parishioners. We knew some had stayed on the island and were now cut off from the mainland with the collapse of the causeway during the storm. 

We traveled to Orlando, leaving right before the highway closed due to flooding from the Pine River. With some help, we spent the next three days reaching out to all our parishioners and helping coordinate transportation and housing for those who were being airlifted and boated off the island. Bill and I returned once power and internet were restored in the Fort Myers area and we spent the following 10 weeks in a borrowed condo. On October 6, we traveled by boat to Sanibel for the first time, beaching on the shore and walking to our home. Luckily the interior of the house survived. The storm surge that devastated the island stopped within 15 inches of the main level of the home, preserving the contents within. The garage and exterior sustained damage but as we looked at our neighbors homes, we realized we were one of only a few on the street that escaped destruction. The recognition of how fortunate we were was overwhelming and inspiring. We were blessed to be able to return home right before Christmas. 

The church, however, was not that fortunate. St. Michael’s took on 4 to 5 feet of water in all the buildings; along with wind damage to the roofs. The historic sanctuary held strong, including all the stained-glass windows, but the storm surge destroyed everything inside and heaved up the floor. The front door of the new office building that was dedicated the year prior gave way and five feet of water tossed everything inside like a washing machine. Other rooms in the main building met the same watery fate, along with the church’s Thrift Shop, Noah’s Ark. 

Fr. Bill and I took several trips by boat, beaching on the shore and taking beach wagons by foot to save what we could from the church. It was heartbreaking to see everything covered in the grey silt that lines the bottom of the gulf, yet we found joy again. Almost two weeks following the landfall of Hurricane Ian, members of our congregation gathered at Peace Lutheran and held service using the chalice, Gospel, and altar books we salvaged from St. Michael’s. What little gifts we were able to salvage are now safely in storage until we can return to our beloved island church. 

Once everyone was accounted for, our next step was identifying someplace to gather. After countless phone calls, text messages, visits and even picking parishioners from being airlifted off the island, we knew gathering our congregation was what people needed from us. They needed to be together to grieve, cry, console, and hug each other. Four different denominations generously offered their facilities for us to use, and we selected Peace Lutheran in Fort Myers to become our mainland home. Peace Lutheran continues to be very welcoming to our congregation. Our service, held after theirs on Sunday mornings, is a special time of connection for our parishioners, many of whom are still displaced and scattered across the area. We have also been blessed to engage in special joint services together for Christmas and other times. 

We are now in the long process of restoring and rebuilding St. Michael’s. Our restoration company got to work quickly, even before the causeway reopened, using barges and helicopters to deliver equipment and crews who spent weeks pulling out soaked, moldy contents, drying out the buildings, and mitigating mold. A Property Restoration Team has been working on a rebuilding plan. We are very close to receiving final estimates and insurance payment numbers that will secure the resurrected St. Michael’s will be underway. We are also working to establish a temporary space ready within the coming months to provide additional worship services, office space, and community engagement programs to help Sanibel recover. St. Michael’s collapsed bell tower was removed from the porch roof along with the bells and the cross. These now stand against a palm tree by the road; lift high the cross indeed! 

We thank everyone in the Diocese for your continued prayers and support; it is truly appreciated.