the flog

GRACE & Perseverance

After Irma's floodwaters receded, historic Mandarin church resolved to rebuild again


The Episcopal Church of Our Savior has stood on the banks of the St. Johns River in Mandarin since 1880. In that year, missionary Charles Sturgess organized the church in the spot where writer Harriet Beecher Stowe and her husband Calvin had been holding bible readings for approximately 12 years.

Since that time, it has weathered 52 hurricanes and tropical storms but has never suffered significant flooding. The church might have endured the high winds of Hurricane Dora in 1964, but a hickory tree fell on its historic chapel, shattering the stained-glass window dedicated by Stowe to her late husband and damaging the structure beyond repair. A replica of the original church with a larger sanctuary was built and dedicated in 1966.

Last year, the church survived Hurricane Matthew's storm surge when the rush of waves and rising water caused severe damage to its riverbank but left the structures unharmed.

But the church's luck changed on September 10-11, when Hurricane Irma brought nearly 15 inches of rain to the city. The runoff from the surrounding neighborhood rose past the church's red brick stoop and seeped into its hallowed floors.

As Jacksonville turned its attention toward the historic rise of the St. Johns River, the church worried about flooding from the other direction. As floodwaters ran off from surrounding neighborhoods, the lower areas on the property acted like catch basins and the water pooled.

Reverend Joe Gibbes, the rector at the Episcopal Church of Our Savior, said the main part of the church and the chapel was spared of any flood damage.

The same could not be said for the adjacent buildings. The office, meeting rooms, nursery, choir room and Sunday school rooms were all soaked with several inches of water that damaged the carpet, walls, and electronics.

After the waters receded, the property was a mess.

"We had some large limbs down around the property and just a ton of debris," Gibbes said. "A ton of really nasty debris. We had a tree down in the parking lot that took the communication lines from the electric pole."

Last year, the church lost its bulkhead along the St. Johns River.

"It was completely destroyed," Gibbes said. "We knew it needed to be replaced before the storm so we had a capital campaign and raised a bunch of money."

Now Gibbes and the parishioners have to focus on yet another recovery.

Gibbes put a call out for a cleanup two days after the storm. Dozens of people showed up to lend a hand.

"I put the post out on Facebook and two of my friends from Birmingham jumped in the truck with a chainsaw and showed up and surprised me," he said. "They drove to a hotel in Georgia, stayed the night, and then came on down."

For now, Gibbes is focused on safety and moving forward.

"Please be assured that our highest priority is the safety of our parishioners," he wrote in a statement to his parish. "Our second priority is to reconstruct and restore our classroom, choir, and office spaces to the optimum level as quickly as possible while being good stewards of the money with which God has entrusted us."

In the meantime, vestiges of the damage remain. On the curb sits piles of wet, moldy carpet, and mountains of trees alongside it.

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