Window a welcome sight after hurricane’s devastation

Published October 12, 2005

A window with the welcoming image of Jesus that once hung in the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer in Biloxi, Miss., somehow survived Hurricane Katrina in September. Years before, it had been pieced together from shards of an original window destroyed in 1969 by Hurricane Camille.

When Hurricane Camille devastated the Gulf Coast on Aug. 17, 1969, among the landmarks it destroyed in Biloxi, Miss., was the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer, where only the bell tower survived.

Before the bulldozers ploughed away the debris, however, women parishioners painstakingly picked through the ruins for pieces of the church’s exquisite stained glass windows that had been imported from Germany. Among the shattered pieces they recovered were images of Jesus’ face and hands, lifted in an act of blessing.

The recovered glass became new works of art under the hands of Evelyn Pease, an artist trained in Germany. Some became part of a “Rose Window” behind a rebuilt Church of the Redeemer; others became part of the “Window of Hope,” which art students from the Louisiana State University created with the help of their art instructor Paul Dufore, and Ms. Pease. The fragments with Jesus’ face and hands became the “Window of the Redeemer” and depicted him with arms raised in welcome, a sun flare behind him. It was placed in the narthex of the church.

When Hurricane Katrina rampaged through the Gulf Coast in September, 36 years after Hurricane Camille, the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer again took a direct hit and this time, even the bell tower did not make it. But something else miraculously survived: The stained glass window with the welcoming image of Jesus.

“I can’t comprehend it. No pews survived, but this 19th-century glass window did,” said Rev. Harold Roberts, who became rector of the Church of the Redeemer more than eight years ago, after moving to Biloxi from Toronto, where his last parish was St. Timothy’s church in Agincourt, Ont.

Mr. Roberts and his congregation became aware that it survived when Biloxi Sun Herald photographer Tim Isbell photographed the stained glass window propped against the bumper of a truck, which was loading salvaged goods near the beachfront; it is now being held for safekeeping by a parishioner.

The story of the stained glass window that survived one of the worst natural disasters in American history has been like a beacon of hope for the Redeemer congregation, which has vowed to build a new, better church.

The congregation, which held a service at the church ruins the Sunday after the hurricane, is now worshipping in a public school. But Mr. Roberts said the congregation is looking at a two-year timetable for building a new church.

“We’re holding up a vision of hope,” he said, adding that it may not be on the same spot and may involve a new way of doing ministry. “The whole of Biloxi has been changed completely. The ordinances will probably be changed about building near the beach.” He said that not everyone might be pleased about building a new church elsewhere but he has told his congregation that, “God is calling us to a different path.”

The hurricane was “a very emotional, overwhelming time” but also “transformational” for everyone at the congregation, said Mr. Roberts. He and his wife, Jen, lost their home and their property. The couple had moved to a friend’s house, which was seven metres above sea level, but they too witnessed the fury of Katrina: “We saw a tree blow over and a 40-foot sailboat lay atop a tree. We saw two-feet waves rolling in a neighbour’s living room.”

Nothing was “identifiable nor salvageable” when the Roberts couple returned to where they used to live — only nine metres-high debris, he recalled. But as they were walking knee deep in water, he saw something red. “I reached down and it was a Canadian flag,” he said, his voice breaking. “We found two Canadian flags and the flag of the Anglican Church of Canada.”

Ordained in the Anglican Church of Canada in 1973, Mr. Roberts and his wife were lured by Biloxi’s charms: its location near the Gulf of Mexico, the Louisiana plantations and the fact that the neo-Gothic Victorian church was on the beachfront and was 300 yards away from the yacht club.

“I was slowly moving towards retirement,” he laughed. “After the hurricane, I’m still 61, but we’re going to build a new church and I’m energized.” Under its current rector Rev. Patrick Yu, Mr. Roberts’ former Toronto-area parish, St. Timothy’s — which was affected by flooding after an August storm — has been helping the Church of the Redeemer get back on its feet. “We obviously had that in mind when we thought of Harold,” said Mr. Yu, adding that other donations have been directed to the Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund (PWRDF), which has set up a Hurricane Katrina relief fund. (St. Timothy’s basement, heavily used for various church programs, was severely damaged by the flood and is undergoing costly repairs.)

As of Sept. 29, PWRDF said it has raised a total of $61,082 for Katrina victims and sent $20,000 to Church World Service, of which the Episcopal Church in the United States is a member.

“Our basic needs — food, water and shelter — are being looked after,” said Mr. Roberts. He said what his church would need is financial assistance to make their vision for a new church a reality.


  • Marites N. Sison

    Marites (Tess) Sison was editor of the Anglican Journal from August 2014 to July 2018, and senior staff writer from December 2003 to July 2014. An award-winning journalist, she has more that three decades of professional journalism experience in Canada and overseas. She has contributed to The Toronto Star and CBC Radio, and worked as a stringer for The New York Times.

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