By Karen Frantz
The wrenching stories of destruction share many common elements: pews that had to be ripped out, waterlogged religious texts, congregants holding on to some sense of normalcy with makeshift services.
But now, one year after Hurricane Sandy left many of the houses of worship devastated in its wake, religious institutions in southern Queens are largely back on their feet and optimistic about the future.
“We’re on the rebound,” said Barry Rachnowitz, director of the Howard Beach Judea Center Preschool, at 162-05 90th St.
He said that although the preschool and connected synagogue are still struggling financially, they are managing and he is looking to the future with hope. Many vital repairs have been made, including replacing ruined walls, furniture and religious articles. And the preschool, which makes money for the synagogue through memberships, is back to business.
Other houses of worship that were still closed several months after the storm have also reopened their doors. Our Lady of Grace in Howard Beach opened Palm Sunday right before Easter, while Christ Presbyterian Church by the Sea in Broad Channel opened two months ago.
But despite the victories, it has been a long year for many.
“It’s an exercise in patience, frustration and perseverance,” said the Rev. Anthony Rucando, of Our Lady of Grace, at 100-05 159th Ave.
He said the church took on water that was so high it reached over his head, and the floor, walls, boiler, statues and religious texts had to be repaired or replaced.
Don Minor, an elder at Christ Presbyterian by the Sea, at 102 Noel Road, said not having the church open was hard on its members. He said a few congregants died while the church was still closed and those funerals had to be held elsewhere.
And despite major progress, some houses of worship still had additional repairs to make one year after the storm.
Though the church itself was restored, Minor was hard at work Sunday rebuilding Christ Presbyterian’s community hall, its main source of money. And Rachnowitz said that after about $50,000 already spent in emergency repairs to the Howard Beach Judea Center, he estimated another $25,000 worth of work still needed to be done.
Religious leaders said they were relying on insurance, grants and donations to pay for repairs. Some members of Congress, including U.S. Rep. Grace Meng (D-Flushing) and U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), have also been pushing legislation to allow the Federal Emergency Management Agency to provide houses of worship aid for rebuilding, which it does not do currently due to separation of church and state concerns.
But although a bill passed the House of Representatives in February and a sister bill was introduced in the Senate in July, the measure is stalled in committee and religious leaders said they were not holding their breath for any possible forthcoming aid.
“Nobody helps,” said Minor, referring to the government. “We don’t hold out much hope.”
But despite the lack of FEMA aid, many houses of worship have been greatly helped by congregants who have rallied behind their churches and synagogues by providing donations or helping personally with cleanup and repair.
Rucando said that after the storm members of his Howard Beach church assured him that they would rebuild, a promise they made good on.
“In the end something greater came about,” he said. “A renewed sense of community, of faith.”