St. Mary's helps sister church in the Virgin Islands


Members of St. Mary's Episcopal Church in Jasper recently returned from a mission trip to a sister church in the British Virgin Islands that is still struggling to recover from a double dose of hurricane destruction.

St. Mary’s the Virgin Episcopal Church on the island of Virgin Gorda was in the crosshairs of Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria, both Category 5 hurricanes, in September 2017. 

"The 180 mph winds (of Irma) began before dawn on and lasted until well after midnight that evening. The hurricane basically sat on top of Virgin Gorda and its neighboring islands...what Irma had not destroyed, Maria finished the job," said the Rev. Robin Hinkle of St. Mary's Episcopal Church in Jasper.

Though separated by 1,800 miles, members of the respective St. Mary's had grown close after the Episcopal Diocese of Alabama entered into a formal Companion Diocesan Agreement with the Episcopal Diocese of the Virgin Islands.  

The intent was for the two dioceses to work together in ministry, sharing resources, ideas and people. 

Bishop Ambrose Gumbs, bishop of the Virgin Islands, has traveled to retreats and conferences at Camp McDowell, the camp and conference center for the Episcopal Diocese of Alabama.

Other clergy and lay people have also made the trip to Alabama, and several women, including two priests, from Virgin Gorda's St. Mary's visited St. Mary's in Jasper and served alongside its members at Camp McDowell.  

In September 2017, local church members made contact with their friends in Virgin Gorda after Hurricane Irma struck. Broken windows were the extend of the damage at that time. 

"Then came the second hurricane. We heard on the news about further devastation, and we kept praying and sending emails, making calls and sending texts, into a big black hole," Hinkle said. 

The Americans were distressed by news reports that 95 percent of the structures on the island had been damaged. The people of the Virgin Gorda were unable to communicate with them because of the lack of cell and internet service. However, word eventually reached the states that there were no deaths but extensive damage to homes, businesses and churches.

"In October 2017, our vestry (the governing board of our church) made the commitment to go to St. Mary’s in Virgin Gorda to help with their recovery, and we began praying for them every Sunday. The initial problem that we faced was that if we were to go, there was no place to stay and nowhere to get food. Our presence would have caused a huge problem logistically. We therefore waited for the basic infrastructure to be put back in place," Hinkle said.  

At a diocesan convention in February, Bishop Gumbs gave Hinkle the green light to send a team.

The team consisted of 15 people, seven men and eight women, led by local contractor Dowell Freeman. 

Freeman, who has been in construction for over 40 years, brought along some of his workers. Most team members were skilled construction workers.

Team members donated their time and travel expenses and the church in Virgin Gorda paid for the materials.  

Freeman coordinated with the church’s Virgin Gorda contractor.

Although the team had planned to install sheetrock in the church, it became clear upon their arrival that a new roof was the more pressing need.

"The tarp and plywood that had been in place since the time of the hurricanes were leaking, and there was mold in both the sacristy and the nave.  We therefore suggested to the vestry that we instead put on a roof, and seal and paint the interior vaulted ceiling.  The vestry approved, and we immediately got to work," Hinkle said.  

In seven days, the team put a roof on the church and office and started the roof over two restrooms. 

Church and community members helped with the work, and the two main building supply companies quickly delivered almost all materials that were needed.

A local contractor loaned his tools that were required for this change in scope.

In addition to the roof and church interior, the team painted the outside of the parish hall, remediated the mold within the church building, refinished the floor of the altar,  cleaned up the cemetery and the yard, dismantled the wooden scaffolding and installed new landscaping.  

Electrical work and air conditioning installation were completed with two weeks of the team leaving the island, and the congregation held their first services in the church since the hurricane on June 16, according to Hinkle.

"Our wonderful God was all over this project. Through His Grace and guidance and miraculous provision - I have so many stories to tell -  we were able to work with our sisters and brothers in Virgin Gorda to accomplish a highly visible work for Him.  St. Mary’s sits atop of a hill in Spanish Town on one of its main thoroughfares, and so the people were able to drive by and witness the revival of this beautiful church building.  The new galvanized roof shines like a light on a hill," Hinkle said. 

However, much work remains to be done for churches in the Virgin Islands.

St. Mary’s rectory, pavilion and senior hall are destroyed. The priest of St. Andrews in St. Thomas reported to Hinkle that the second and third floors of their parish hall are full of mold that must be remediated before construction can begin.  

"Additionally, other churches are still meeting in temporary quarters, due to the damage of their buildings. The churches, the clergy, and their members therefore sit in disarray due to insurance problems, lack of funds, and a dearth of suitable contractors," Hinkle said.

She added that there are logistical hurdles for obtaining supplies and personnel and churches are competing for good contractors who are tied up on more lucrative projects. 

Good legal counsel is needed to combat rampant insurance issues. One contractor has already taken advantage of a vestry inexperienced with construction design or methods.   

"I was able to do pastoral care work while I was there, including some home visits, and witnessed how these sweet people have been impacted mentally, physically and spiritually.  My hope therefore is that by spreading the word, we may be able to mobilize support for the churches and the beautiful people living within the Diocese of the Virgin Islands," Hinkle said.