‘Washed out to sea,’ but New Jersey chapel survives

Shore congregations still coping with Sandy’s power

By Mary Frances Schjonberg
Posted Dec 11, 2012

The battered Fellowship Hall of St. Elisabeth’s Chapel-by-the-Sea in Ortley Beach, New Jersey, was elevated 42 inches above ground when it was built. Three feet of sand is now piled up underneath it and covers the remains of the chapel in the foreground. St. Elisabeth photo/Lynn Casaleggio

[Episcopal News Service] If you were to say, six weeks after Hurricane Sandy blew through, that all that is left of St. Elisabeth’s Chapel-by-the-Sea in Ortley Beach, New Jersey, are some battered brass vases, candlesticks and collection plates; some sodden prayer books and hymnals; part of a sign honoring contributors to the chapel; the back of a pew with a Bible still secure in the rack, the water-stained register of services and, perhaps, the bishop’s chair, you would be right, but only in the physical sense.

And the same can be said for many of the other churches and chapels along the shore in the Diocese of New Jersey. (St. Elisabeth’s is the only complete loss.)

Dennis Bellars, who has been the chapel’s senior warden for 16 years, told Episcopal News Service that the congregation is “tucked into the [East Dover] Baptist Church on the mainland.” Diocese of New Jersey Bishop George Councell has been there to worship with the members and “we want to reopen our doors as soon as possible.”

Prior to Hurricane Sandy, St. Elisabeth’s Chapel-by-the-Sea in Ortley Beach, New Jersey, sat parallel to the Atlantic Ocean at the end of Third Avenue with just a small parking lot separating it from the beach. The chapel’s Fellowship Hall in the background is still standing. St. Elisabeth photo/Kathy Watson

Bellars and his fellow leaders of the 127-year-old congregation have already begun to write “our need list, our want list and our wish list for our next building.” That work began during the month before he could actually visit the spot from which, in Councell’s words, St. Elisabeth’s was “washed out to sea.”

When Bellars and others finally gained access to Ortley on Nov. 29, a month after Sandy, “we saw just rubble where the church once was.”

The Fellowship Hall, built in 2009, is still standing but its structural integrity is in question. Built on 42-inch pilings but now with barely any daylight between the sand and the underside of the hall, the building took on about 15 inches of water, Bellars estimates. That means Sandy drove at least five feet of water against it and the chapel, which stood in front of it parallel to the ocean and across a small parking lot from the beach.

“I had seen pictures but when you see the devastation in reality and when you see chunks of asphalt from the municipal parking lot, which was right next door between us and the water, and the telephone poles on the ground where the chapel was, it just moved me to the point where – I’m kind of an emotional person anyway – the tears just flowed,” he said. “It was very sad, very sad.”

There may have been 15 inches of seawater in St. Elisabeth’s Fellowship Hall that floated the piano and refrigerator, but the Christmas gifts were untouched. Diocese of New Jersey photo/Phyllis Jones

But the sadness has been salved in part by members, friends and neighbors in the small community that is part of the town of Toms River, which lost an estimated 20 percent of its taxable base to Sandy. Ever since the storm, people have e-mailed and called Bellars to tell him they have found things they think belong to St. Elisabeth’s. A parishioner on Green Island, across the bay and slightly north on the mainland, found part of a 3 feet by 5 feet commemorative sign that used to hang inside the chapel. Many of its brass plaques were intact.

A young man not affiliated with the chapel found an interior door up in Ocean Acres about three miles north of Green Island. Bellars said the door was severely damaged but for the brass plaque on it, which honored Mrs. T. Robinson Warren of New Brunswick, New Jersey, who was instrumental in having the chapel built as a thank offering for the restoration of the health of her daughter, Cornelia.

Someone found a pew back with a Bible still in the book rack about three blocks down Third Avenue from the church. Bellars said the person e-mailed him to report the finding and noted that when they checked the Bible, it opened to a passage about rebuilding the temple.

“Go figure,” Bellars said.

Early on, Toms River Police Sgt. Ralph Stocco, who was married at St. Elisabeth’s nine years ago, contacted Bellars to tell him he had recovered an ornate chair wedged under the rubble of a nearby house and put it in the back of his pickup truck. From his description Bellars was certain it was the bishop’s chair. Stocco later brought the chair to East Dover Baptist where Pastor Michael Mazur vacuumed the needlepoint, cleaned up the wood and set it up near the altar, Bellars said. It’s a little worse for wear, he said, but will be restored.

“People have found our prayer books and our hymnals” scattered around the neighborhood, as well as the services register, Bellars said.

“It was wet but, they thought that it would be salvageable because you can read it,” he said of the latter.

While Bellars was meeting inside the Fellowship Hall Nov. 29 with John Webster of Church Insurance and others, diocesan Chief Operating Officer Phyllis Jones was outside taking pictures when a squad car pulled up. The officer asked if she was part of the church and if he could give her something. Jones said he reached over to the passenger side and lifted out one of the chapel’s brass altar vases.

Bellars thinks there’s more to be found, especially on the site, which he estimates is now covered by 3 feet of sand. He’s had offers from a group of Boy Scouts in Tennessee to come and methodically dig through that sand whenever the congregation is ready. Bellars is eager to have that happen.

“I think the bell is down there,” he said.

Inside the Fellowship Hall, Sandy was capricious. The storm knocked over the refrigerator and the piano. It destroyed one of two filing cabinets into which Bellars had recently organized documents related to the chapel’s history. The other “floated from the back of the hall to the front of the hall on its side,” he said.

Yet, in one corner, tables filled with items for a Christmas celebration were “just the way it was left; the gifts were there, the table cloths were there,” according to Bellars.

Still, he finds an upside: the congregation has grown to the point where the year-round residents gather during the winter for worship at Faith Lutheran Church in nearby Lavallette. The members met there for two years while the chapel was insulated, got air conditioning and a better heating system. Lately there’d been talk of adding on to the chapel and Bellars said there was a debate about just where the addition would go. “Now we don’t have to face that situation,” he notes.

Water from all sides
As Sandy roared into New Jersey, it flung winds over 1,150 miles around it. Those winds, coupled with a full-moon high tide around the time the storm raked the coast, pushed water ahead of it and forced it far inland. Along New Jersey’s barrier islands, many buildings were damaged or destroyed not by water from the ocean but from the bay side of the islands.

Hurricane Sandy’s storm surge clobbered All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Bay Head, New Jersey, from both the ocean and the bay sides. Diocese of New Jersey photo/Phyllis Jones

Such was the case in Bay Head where All Saints’ Episcopal Church sits three blocks from the ocean and a block from the tidal Scow Ditch, and where Sandy caused an estimated $4 million in damage to the church and rectory, according to its rector.

“It got hammered on both sides by the ocean and the bay,” said the Rev. Neil Turton in an interview one month after the storm. “But the bay did more damage through all the mud and muck and slime. The foundations literally collapsed. If you would have gone into All Saints’ [just after the storm], you would have seen the pews at a 30 degree angle pointing towards the center of the aisle.”

Turton and his wife, Wendy, rode out the storm a bit farther inland in Bay Head, and he first saw the church when friends came with their kayaks to paddle there. The sight “was devastating,” he said, adding that but for the parish’s Bristol Hall and office area “the church would have floated into the ditch.” The rectory was severely damaged and may well have to be razed, according to Turton.

“The water damage was so colossal,” he said. “It destroyed my office. We’ve lost so much. I was walking around in borrowed shoes for five days. All our clothes at the rectory – everything – we just lost everything.”

“The Church Insurance group has been wonderful; I have the utmost praise for them,” Turton said.

An adjustor came within a day or two and arranged for clean-up to begin, he said, as well as an immediate project to raise the ditch’s bulkhead behind the church by two feet. That latter project is being funded by $50,000 from the insurance company and a parishioner’s gift of stock that will add another $30,000, according to Turton.

“It’s just amazing how people have risen above this catastrophic nightmare and come together in a most impressive way,” said Turton, who was a priest in the Church of England for 23 years before coming to All Saints’ 10 years ago.

The All Saints’ congregation is now worshipping at 12:15 p.m. on Sundays at St. Mary’s by the Sea Episcopal Church in Point Pleasant Beach, about two miles to the north. St. Mary’s has offered refuge to hundreds of storm victims since the morning after Sandy cleared.

“We, hopefully, will be celebrating at All Saints’ again at All Saintstide 2013,” Turton said.

Life in the six weeks since Sandy “is like living in an alternate universe – all our certainty, our sense of knowing what the day will bring is gone,” he said.

“I preached on that first Sunday [All Saints Sunday six days after Sandy struck] that we are a people in exile. This is what exile feels like. We are in a borrowed house. We are in a borrowed church. We’re wearing borrowed clothes.”

The Turtons are living in a summer rental home in Point Pleasant which had never been rented in the winter until a parishioner made connections with the owners who agreed to let the couple move in.

Some of the All Saints’ members have lost their houses, as well, yet “no one has put the blame on God,” said Turton.

“They might say ‘Is God testing us?’ but no one is blaming God, no one has blamed God or asked why God has allowed it.”

The Jersey Shore weathered Tropical Storm Irene in August 2011 and residents figured Sandy would be bad but “nobody thought it was going to be like this. Because if we had, I don’t know what we would have done and perhaps it was a good thing we didn’t know.”

Sandy was a fickle storm
Farther north along the shore, Sandy’s storm surge pushed five feet of water into the basements, parish hall and rectory of St. George’s-by-the-River Episcopal Church in Rumson. Oil tanks tipped over and spilled oil into the water. The members are worshipping at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in nearby Red Bank.

For all of its power, Sandy was fickle, or least astoundingly unpredictable. St. John’s Episcopal Church of Litter Silver, about four miles inland from Rumson, also suffered serious flooding, but the 243-year-old building of Christ Church in Shrewsbury, some two miles from Little Silver, lost half of one stained-glass window and some trees in the churchyard. And Trinity Episcopal Church in Asbury Park, nine miles south of Shrewsbury and three blocks from the ocean, had only minor wind damage.

“We have been incredibly blessed that things are not as worse as they could have been,” said diocesan CFO Jones.

Sandy Diehl, senior warden of the seasonal Episcopal Church of St. Simon’s by-the-Sea in Mantoloking, would no doubt agree. The church, north of Ortley Beach and south of Bay Head, weathered the storm with minimal damage and no water infiltration. This is a small town where 60 homes were destroyed, 137 uninhabitable and 383 damaged, according to information here, and where “the ocean met the bay everywhere,” in the words of Diehl. The church is about equidistant – roughly 300 feet – from the ocean and the bay.

“We have been the recipient of a miracle,” he said. “Both properties [church and rectory] have been spared, amazingly … It almost appeared that the waters parted – if I can use that expression – and went around both the church and the rectory, versus under their foundations.”

And to the south of Ortley Beach on the northern tip of the next barrier island, Long Beach, St. Peter’s-at-the-Light Episcopal Church in Barnegat Light also survived unscathed. The same is true for Holy Innocents Episcopal Church towards the south end of LBI, as the locals call the island, in Beach Haven. “That just boggles my mind,” said the Rev. Donald Turner, St. Peter’s rector.

His congregation returned to the church on Dec. 2 after natural-gas lines were reconnected in town. They had been celebrating Eucharist at noon on Sundays at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church on the mainland in Waretown since the storm.

The Rev. Frank Crumbaugh III, Holy Innocents’ rector, kept a log of his Sandy experience on the church’s website. “I cried a lot today,” is how the penultimate entry on All Souls Day (Nov. 2) begins.

He also posted a status report on the members of the congregation, listing their locations and summarizing the damage to their homes. “Whole house/total loss?” and reports of partial flooding fill the list. One entry reads “First floor flooded/ Bob died 11/14.”

“The 2012 holidays may feel subdued,” Crumbaugh wrote on the website’s homepage Dec. 1.

“We have one another, and the hopes each has for what life looks like after the storm,” he wrote. “We have the ancient words and the comforting familiar shape of the liturgy and the music we all love so well. Let that be enough, because it is enough. Rest in the ancient familiar of Advent and Christmas – let it give grounding and rest and comfort.”

— The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is an editor/reporter for the Episcopal News Service.


Comments (1)

  1. Val Hymes says:

    Remarkable, amazing and beautifully reported and written story, Mary Frances.
    The miracle of the pew Bible. Wow.

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