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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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Can anyone tell me if the Neireds will be parading this year? If so, what date and what route? It has the most beautiful costumes and for the last 5 years we have faithfully come to The Coast to watch this parade from Mobile. It is most spectacular.

Great article on Mr. Church and his partner. That paragraph about the woman throwing away her elaborate gown got me to thinking. Do any of you know people or organizations that might have old/used mardi gras royalty gowns/costumes that they might want to sell for a hugely discounted fee? I know of some North Louisiana krewes who are just starting out and would LOVE to have those cast-offs to get started.

Carter --Just came across this web site after seeing " Rising from Ruin" on MSNBC. We want you to know that our krewe de la Noblesse, Holloween 2002 theme costumes are very famous! Elementary schools often ask us to promenade during Mardi Gras and especially during Holloween. The kids love them. You wouldn't believe the questions they ask!!The first is "how much do they cost?" then to "who designs them",etc. We have had many offers to sell them. There is no way we are giving up our gorgeous Carter Church originals. Maybe a loan to the M.G. of Southwest La Museum!?

Carter, This will really stretch your memory but you made my maid costume when I was in Nerieds. The theme was New York, New York. When you fitted my costume I realized I could not possibly gain an ounce and I remember you assuring me that you were sure I would not. It was such a special year for me and I still cherish the memories. I still have the dress and your drawing of my dress. Hope you and Yancy are well. Take care, Becky (Maid Carmen)

Mr. Carter Church. What a blessing to find yet another of my surname. I bet we could track our families to one another. And find that we are relatives. My family is the Church family from the great State of Alabama. Still have many relatives in the Mobile Area. And some in Pass Christian, Mississippi as well. I'm glad to know you friend. May God bless you, and your family, and everyone in your area. I know this has been a complete heller for you brother. Hang in there.

CARTERRRRRRRR!!!!! It's Marisa and Deanna remeber us we are from Nutley, NJ. We put dry wall in your house. We miss you so much. How are you? We hope the shop is going well. Tell Yancy we said Hi. We love you.
-Marisa & Deanna

Hey Carter, it's me Georgia. I lost my maid's costume in the hurricane. Do you still have the drawing of it?. I would love to purchase it. (Quebec Winter Carnival Maid)

Hello Carter, I have not talked to you or Yancy in such a long time. I really wish I could see you both. I lost Yancy's e-mail address so if you would either you or Yancy write me back and let me know your addresses. Tell Yancy I miss him and would love to talk to him and catch him up on all that has happened in the last year. I am glad that your beautiful creations were not destroyed and that most of your inventory was spared. I love you both.
Love, V. Kerr

The problem with New Orleans is there are no manufacturing jobs, no corporate HQ jobs, no industrial jobs, no commercial companies of any size so there will always be unemployment, crime, poor education at the primary level and politicians who are completely inept (Nagin & Council members)with no corporate experience outside of NOLA or understanding of how to grow business "into" New Orleans. Katrina gave the city/state an opportunity to change all that is bad using free and paid services from world class business people, architects, urban planners, tax free zone businesses and industrial leaders but Nooooo...New Orleans is what is always has been, a place where you can't make a decent living and no one cares about changing that. People only care about when the next Happy Hour is and the next festival or weekend party. Sorry NOLA you don't get any sympathy from me and I am truly sorry that the displaced people can't come back because there are no jobs to come back to now and no jobs in the forseeable future. Have a Dixie on me and pretend that the future will be better.

Hi! Yancy and Mr Carter, I just wanted to say I miss you guys. I hope all has been well. I hope your lives are back to normal now since Katrina. You all will always hold that special place within my heart. I hold a lot of fond memories. You've always made me feel like part of your family and was very touched that you cared about me and my children as they were growing up. I've always had so much respect, love and admiration for you guys. You were good to me.When I became ill and could no longer work for you I was saddened for the longest time because I missed you all, my second home and the pets. I would get attached to them. Well, to sum this up without sounding too mushy, it makes me feel good to let you know this, what makes you two so special is that you are so genuine,talented, caring, giving and most of all down to earth people. Take Care, I Love you Yancy and I Love you Mr Carter. Betty Carter

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