This morning some of the family returned home. We said good bye to Jane, Lisa, Mandy, David, Poetry (never even got around to mentioning her) and bid them a safe trip home. After that, the remainder of us went down to the beach. Actually, I stayed at the house to get some school work done. Darn discussion boards… When they returned, however, the fun began for me as we headed back into town for some important things. First, I wanted to go to confession. I try to go every week now but I didn’t make it last week so it’s been two weeks. Anyway, the sins were a-backin’ up. Not really, it’s just something I do. Confess, not sin. Well, actually, I guess I sin too or I wouldn’t have to confess. Whatever, you know what I mean. My sister-in-law Kris, our friend Bob, and my son were going on a dolphin watching boat tour. My wife was going shopping on the Strand. I headed off to one of the remaining Catholic churches on the island.
Over a century ago, one of the absolute worst storms ever to make landfall (EVER) struck right at the heart of what was then Texas’ largest cities, Galveston. No one is quite sure, but at least 6,000-12,000 people died, their bodies never recovered. After the unnamed hurricane moved inland and died out the Corps of Engineers moved in and began one of the greatest civil engineering projects undertaken to that point. First, a seventeen foot tall seawall was constructed. I don’t know about you, but I still think it’s kind of foolish to attempt to “keep the sea back”. The ocean’s rather large and when she’s angry, nothing’s going to keep her back. But, seventeen feet of concrete several miles long actually worked for a long time. Any storm that came close to Galveston never had a surge high enough to top the wall. The rest of that grand scheme was to secure everything behind the wall (i. e., the actually city) by pouring landfill to raise the ground up to the height of the wall. The few buildings that remained needed to be jacked up so that new foundations could be poured underneath. One such building was St. Patrick’s Catholic church where I went to confession today. Look carefully at the pictures and try to imagine this baby being lifted five inches, let alone five feet. Simply amazing.
Well, the dolphin tour didn’t materialize. They were booked solid for the day. I did make it to confession and on my way out I noticed an old friend in the form of a stained glass window of St. Rita! I picked up the rest of my party and we drove around the Strand area. We were in search of the oak carvings. Remember how that seawall kept things dry for a hundred years? Yeah… Five years ago a hurricane named Ike took aim at Galveston under almost the exact same conditions as the 1900 storm and following an identical path. In fact, our last visit here came just a month before that landfall. Guess what had a surge of twenty-some feet? Yep. The whole city was once again under water. St. Patrick’s was spared. However, the old Cathedral Basilica of St. Mary, the first Catholic cathedral in the state of Texas and the place where just five years ago my son and I met Cardinal Dinardo, was not so lucky. St. Mary’s was never the most beautiful church in town but it was historic for having survived 1900. After Ike, the flood damage was so severe that the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston closed every parish on the island save for three and those three were merged into the new Holy Family parish. St. Mary’s, however, cannot be closed as it is still technically the seat of the cardinal. As far as I know, the pope himself would have to sign off on that closure. Also, because it’s a nationally registered historic site, the restoration work is taking a painfully long time.
I just realized that I left you with those oak carvings and no explanation. Another casualty of Ike were several hundred large oak trees that could not be salvaged. Local artists sprang to action and carved their bases into masterpieces. We drove past, snapping pictures, and then found ourselves in front of St. Mary’s. As we pulled up out front, a couple were walking away from the front door. I was puzzled because their website indicates that the church building has been closed for the past five years. I hopped out of the car with Bob and we approached the couple. My wife had rolled down her window to ask them if they had been inside. “Sure,” they said. “It’s open.” We walked toward the door and began talking with them. It turns out that the word “open” and the words “not securely locked” mean the same thing to these two yutzes. But since we were already there, we figured “why not?” It took a few minutes but Bob and the tourist guy slid the heavy oak door back open and we entered the nave. Wow, what a difference five years makes! The place was excavated down to bare earth. As we were looking around I got to use my “knowledge” as a teacher of Catholic theology to school the tourists in the history of this place. I tried my best not to embarrass the dude in front of his wife. He started to say things like “I read that the pope is ‘over’ this church”. I wanted to reply “Do you know how stupid you sound right now?” Instead I said something about how John Paul II had elevated the church to basilica status. I don’t think he understood a word I said.
After a few minutes of peeking around I ran back to the car, afraid that the siren I heard in the distance was coming for me. My son, in the back seat the whole time, laughed to see his old man running like a scared little girl. We had gotten our pictures and had our fun, now it was time to head back to the beach house. And along the way, as if this day hadn’t been interesting enough, my son frantically announced that he had to use the potty. In Saturday afternoon Seawall traffic, the best we could manage was to pull onto a side street next to the Galveston Convention Center and let him use the curb. You will recall that he had spent a little time with his aunt Kris and Bob. They must have all stopped for cocktails. “What did you give him?!” shouted my wife, laughing at the volume of outflow. I just sank down in my street, reflecting on how strange my life has become in the past five years. And I love it.