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Nearly 100-year-old seaside chapel is no more

Posted at 5:58 PM, Jan 03, 2024
and last updated 2024-01-03 18:33:49-05

FORT MYERS BEACH, Fla. — The Chapel-by-the-Sea, the oldest church in Fort Myers, began its demolition Tuesday marking an emotional chapter for the Fort Myers Beach community. This church was established 84 years ago, and its been at its location just off Estero Boulevard for nearly half of that time.

Former Interim Pastor James Berger reflected on the church's history, "It was the warmth and the friendship of the congregation that was the best, I was looking forward to handing that off to the new minister, and then Ian came along."

Hurricane Ian, which hit in September 2022, flooded the church with fourteen feet of water, destroying books, furniture, and three grand pianos, some of which are still missing. Despite the congregation's efforts with sandbags, the scale of destruction was beyond anticipation.

Jo Knobloch, founder of Save Our Strays Feline Rescue, expressed her shock at the aftermath: "Seeing it for the first time, I think is a shock to everyone, to see all their computers and paperwork laying everywhere."

As the community grapples with the ongoing effects of the disaster, Berger highlights the deep, unresolved trauma, "This area, this whole region, we're living with collective trauma, and we have not gotten over this. People say 'It's been over a year, get over this.' Guess what folks, if you tell me that, I know you didn't suffer, you didn't get hit like we did."

With the congregation still displaced, the church's future remains uncertain. Church leaders, while unsure of the next steps, anticipate a rebuild, if decided, could take 3-5 years. In the meantime, services are held at Cypress Lake Presbyterian in Fort Myers.

The cost of the demolition exceeds half a million dollars, with a completion timeline of about four weeks. Despite the loss, a symbol of hope survives - the iconic dolphin stained glass window, now removed in hopes of finding it a future home.