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Rising from Ruin is an on-going MSNBC.com special report chronicling two coastal Mississippi towns, Bay St. Louis and Waveland, as they rebuild after Hurricane Katrina.

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BAY ST. LOUIS, Miss. -- Carter Church’s heart may be in Bay St. Louis, but Carnival is in his blood. But then that’s to be expected of a man who’s reigned for nearly half a century as one of the pre-eminent costume makers for the courts of Mardi Gras Krewes.

“My family was always involved in Mardi Gras,” says the 62-year-old Church. “My grandfather was a member of Rex (an organization that helped create many of the traditions of New Orleans' Mardi Gras celebration). "Mardi Gras runs in the family, but it tended to skip generations because my father wasn’t terribly interested in Mardi Gras but I got the bug as a kid.”

There are perhaps only a dozen costume makers in the same league as Church, those who design and make by hand the costumes of Mardi Gras royalty. It is a business, a passion that has consumed Church since he was a child watching the parades on St. Charles Street.

“It’s a business, but it’s not a business,” he says. “It’s seasonal, but you work all year ... (and) Christmas gets relegated to the back burner,” he says with a laugh.

But not this year. Katrina wiped out his business, but, as if making some kind of twisted Faustian bargain with him, gave him the first Christmas in more than 40 years when he hasn’t had to work.

During an average season, Church makes between 125 and 150 costumes for the celebration, which begins in late February. This year he is making just six. Though New Orleans has vowed to continue its 150-year old Mardi Gras tradition, holding parades and inviting partiers back into its streets, the surrounding pageantry and social depth of the season have been all but wiped out.

"A lot of (the Krewes) are going to parade but as far as having a ball and needing elaborate ball costumes they aren’t doing it this year,” Church says. “So basically I’m out of business for a year. And these costumes I’m doing, they’ve already paid me for them, (so) that means no income coming in for a while.”

A large man who comfortably fills a room with his presence, Church speaks in the slow, sing-song rhythm of his native New Orleans -- a timbre that is all Beignets and coffee -- and his conversational style twists and turns like a lazy tributary of the Mississippi River. He has a fast smile and a faster laugh, which showers a room like strings of beads being tossed out to Bourbon Street revelers.

Diverse sources of inspiration

His office is awash with a creative clutter one would expect of a person who draws inspiration from such diverse sources as Czarist Russia, fairy tales and Barbie debutante designer gowns. In his workshop hang constellations of rhinestones, lace, feather boas and materials of many hues.

Sitting behind his desk, Church describes a career that has spanned more than four decades, the seeds of which were planted when he was mere lad of 5.

“My sister got stuck with me and she was taking art lessons and dragged me along. After a while she stopped, but I was hooked," he says. "I kept pursuing art. I’ve always loved drawing.”

At age 15, he was helping a friend make some Carnival headpieces. The friend bolted to New York to accept a job and Church stepped in to finish the process. The Krewe captain asked him to repeat the process the next and a career was born. Now, 118 design awards and 47 years later, “I’m still at it,” he says.

Strewn before him on a broad desk are a dozen different full color sketches of gowns, headdresses and assorted costumes, each a work of art in its own right. And in recent years, the art world has come to recognize that fact as well. Collectors have begun snapping up his design sketches during gallery showings, a development that has both pleased and surprised him.

Planned obsolescence

The work, by any standard, requires a brutal determination. The gowns and costumes are entirely handmade, and each rhinestone -- and they number into the thousands on some costumes -- must be individually glued on. The get-ups can weigh up to 120 pounds thanks to those rhinestones, heavy fabrics and wire infrastructure needed to hold elaborate headdresses in place.

And they don't come cheap. A King’s costume can set you back $5,000. One year he made a Queen’s costume that cost $9,000 because the owner wanted white mink instead of the more-subdued rabbit fur.

Church cherishes the transforming nature of his creations, which he says borders on magic. Mardi Gras is deeply entwined with the social scene and very much tied to the debutante season, so “you see these young girls come of age right before your eyes,” he says. “You’ll see these young college girls in their jeans and pony tails and the baseball caps and then for one night they turn into fairy tale princesses."

But the fairy tales don't always end happily for his creations. He winces when talking about how they are often just tossed aside, stored in attics and the like after being worn only once or twice. In one extreme case, some 37 years ago, he recalls how a woman wore a queen's gown he had made and then simply tossed it over the side of a trash can when the night’s festivities were over.

Thinking she had merely forgotten to retrieve it, Church called after her, saying, “You forgot your dress!” And she replied, “Oh, I don’t want it, I don’t need it anymore, I’ll never use it again.” That really stung, Church says, “because it really hit home the planned obsolescence of all this.”

Back to the Bay

Though he grew up in New Orleans, Church spent summers as kid in Bay St. Louis with his grandmother, coming over on the train. “So I always had a connection to the Coast,” he says.

He and his partner, Yancey, moved to Bay St. Louis nearly 18 years ago. They decided to make the move permanent when, after having bought a house and working on it most weekends, they found themselves spending more and more time in the town. “We were essentially commuting to New Orleans,” he says.

His home is 31 feet above sea level and Camille, the former heavyweight hurricane champ, never touched the place when it roared through in 1969, he says. Like so many others, he figured he was safe this time. “Needless to say, we got five feet of water in house,” he says.

He and Yancey are now living in a FEMA trailer outside the shop, which survived with nearly no outside damage, due to its solid steel frame construction, and took on only about a foot of water. More important, almost none of his inventory was lost.

“When we came back and saw the shop intact, I almost cried,” he says.

And while Katrina has put a damper on his livelihood for a year at least, she hasn't persuaded him to abandon his adopted town.

“I love it here; this is where I’m gonna stay, hurricane or no hurricane,” he says.

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35 COMMENTS

Hooorah Mister Church i want to come down this year and portake and give some of my skills ...while i'm there....i want to help ....even if it's in a small way...see ya soon

Mardis Gras is a tradition that should continue with its magestic history, even though the circumstances are monumentally clear why it should not go on. I admire his perpestive to believe in the soul of the jazz beat rythmic New Orleans; it will resurrect with beauty and most of all its vivid heart that still beats strong and loud.

If you ever come to Bay/Waveland area, also the Pass then you will see why so many of us want to stay. It is not just the lay of the towns but the PEOPLE. Come just one time and you will fall in love. I had lived in Dallas and Coral Gables before deciding that I would take up on an offer a friend had made "to just come see". I did just that in 1985 and have been here ever since. Part of rebuilding this place is in my soul. If you want to experience one of the most rewarding things you have ever done - you will come join us.

That's amazing Mr. Church! I've always loved New Orleans and especially Mardi Gras--my mom's entire side of the family lives in New Orleans and Lake Charles, so I've grown up with the magic that is Mardi Gras, even though I constantly move around with my family cause of my dad's job in the air force. I wish I could go to New Orleans right now, and help everyone!!! I would love to see your costumes in the parade.

Thank you so much for your fantastic, imaginative, and ethereal costumes--they have contributed to my love of Mardi Gras, and the amazing city of New Orleans.

*~*Merry Christmas!*~*

People should donate those unwanted costumes, and start a museum.

Mr. Church,

I enjoyed reading the article. I would hold on to a gown or costume you created for me. I really hope your business starts booming again for you.

You are some kind of gifted!!

Come up Shreveport way, we still have many Krewes up here, and several parades. We have a Mardi Gras Museum in Bossier City, but Mardi Gras is everywhere in Louisiana, not just in NOLA...

Mr. Church,Your story is an inspiration to my daughter who has been drawing people and clothes since she was 3 years old. My family is originally from New Orleans and we send our best wishes and prayers to you!Hang in there!

Wow! What an amazing story. As someone who has never owned an evening gown let alone one of the fabulous "Church Creations" it made me sick when I read the part about the woman who draped hers over a trash can! Unbelievable!! God bless you Mr. Church! Keep doin' your thing baby ;-)

Carter and Yancy, so glad that you have decided not to leave the Bay just because that hurricane came ashore here. Once we get past the first road bumps and climb some of these mountains that have gotten in the way, we will be able to focus, get the job done and it's gonna be OK.

Hi Carter,

What a wonderful article about a truly amazing person.
In all my years of first hand involvement in Mardi Gras, thru Iris, with Miss Irma and my mother, Elsie, I've had the joy of viewing many of your magnificent costumes up close and personal. I even had the pleasure of wearing one your creations in the Krewe of Sparta, many years ago. How exciting to see someone I know gain national recognition.

Thanks Carter!!! Keep up the good work!!!

God Bless,

Did you know that Mardi Gras is in Mississippi too? The Coast always has Mardi Gras. The French settled in D'Iberville very early. Will Mardi Gras be on the Coast this year? Does anyone know?

Mr. Church: God bless you and your talent. If I ever were so privileged to wear one of your creations I would never discard it or store in an attic. I would find a way to use it like in Key West's FantasyFest and Rio de Janiero's Carnaval.

I will pray that your business recovers and that the tradition of Mardi Gras continue to shine on, it one of our "american" events I am proud to boast about to my european friends.

Mr. Church: God bless you and your talent. If I ever were so privileged to wear one of your creations I would never discard it or store in an attic. I would find a way to use it like in Key West's FantasyFest and Rio de Janiero's Carnaval.

I will pray that your business recovers and that the tradition of Mardi Gras continue to shine on, it one of our american events I am proud to boast about to my european friends.

Carter made my Maid's costume when I was on the Krewe of Selene Diamondhead MS Court in 2001. Our theme was tropical with Queen Brenda and King Henry as Palm Trees. I had gorgeous glittery tropical fish in my head piece and gown. Carter did our whole court from parrot, flamingo and sunset, to tropical drinks. I love him, and would never use anyone else!

Jane's question, yes there will be a very scaled down Mardi Gras on the Coast this year. A few parades but basically the balls are all cancelled because there isn't any where to have them yet.

Carter made my Maid's costume when I was on the Krewe of Selene Diamondhead MS Court in 2001. Our theme was tropical with Queen Brenda and King Henry as Palm Trees. I had gorgeous glittery tropical fish in my head piece and gown. Carter did our whole court from parrot, flamingo and sunset, to tropical drinks. I love him, and would never use anyone else!

Jane's question, yes there will be a very scaled down Mardi Gras on the Coast this year. A few parades but basically the balls are all cancelled because there isn't any where to have them yet.

Hello Mr. Church,
What an inspiring story and you make me proud to be a cajun!! I haven't lived in Louisiana for some time now, but my dream was to move to the beautiful Mississipi Gulf Coast. I, also fell in love with Bay St. Louis and the surrounding area. Katrina destroyed my dreams, but my heart and soul still yearns for the Gulf Coast. God bless all of you and time will mend our broken hearts.

A Displaced Southern Belle

Even though I have never experienced the magic of Mardi Gras, I want to be there when Mr. Church makes his grand comeback in the new era of this great celebration.
Best of luck to you!!

Coming back down to earth and reality, Mardi Gras (as old and revered a custom as it is) shouldn't be considered till there is more of a New Orleans to celebrate it. If we are to concern ourselves with waste in the rebuilding of the Gulf coast by government or others, don't get ahead of yourselves with partying. There are some things that are worth the wait and i'm sure Mardi Gras is one of those things. Wait till the town is back to a curtain degree of normalicy to have more people enjoy in the celebration than can do it this year...

Mr. Church:
Can you make & sell Mardi Gras masks this year? I'd love to buy one to help you get back to you craft. I've never been to the New Orleans, but I'd like to share in the Mardi Gras tradition this year & see you all get back to celebration.

Anyone who knows Carter and Yancy also know that they are part of what makes Bay St. Louis "a place apart" and Waveland "a wonderful place to be". FYI to anyone who doesn't know. We do have Mardi Gras on the Mississippi Coast and Carter does make gowns for some of them and they are absolutely stunning. One more thing just to tell you how wonderful he is. After a divorce, I was a single parent of three boys aged 4 to 9. I knew Yancy and Carter from doing business with them at my dad's law office. When I decided to seperate from my husband they provided me with a house to rent and every Easter until the boys were older they brought easter baskets to my children. They couldn't wait to see what the "Easter Bunnies" brought them. That is just one of the stories that make them so special. The list could go on and on. They have done so many wonderful things to make my life a little brighter, and I hope they know how much we love them.

Hi Carter, Happy to see you made it.We lose some material things but as long as we have life we're O.K.I enjoyed the article very much and hope everything gets to as close as normal soon.Hope to see you again someday.

Hey Yancey and Carter,
I am VERY happy to know that you too are ok! This is Chris (Cindy's son). I am soo sorry for all the losses that you and everyone has had. Its all uphill from here and I wish ya'll the best of luck. Take care and hope to see ya soon, Love Chris Smith

Carter made me a pagent dress and then my one of a kind wedding gown 10 years ago. Katrina may have taken everything else I own, but she did not get my Carter Church original wedding gown!

Hey Carter; So glad to see that smiling face here on the net at least. We miss ya! Carter, Rita got us, as well as some beautiful costumes you so lovingly created for us but we do have pictures, family and great friends like you that are okay; and that is priceless. Please call!

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