BAY ST. LOUIS -- Tuesday dawned still and silent on the beach: The waters of the bay lapped the shore ever so gently and the quiet was sullied only barely by the sounds of massive sifting machines in the distance clearing the sand of storm debris. The peaceful morning on the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina offered the starkest of contrasts to last year's calamity.
Piercing the silence at 9 a.m. came the sound of the Christ Episcopal Church bell, rung by parishioners to mark the anniversary of the terrible storm. The congregation took turns pulling the bell cord, tolling it 58 times in remembrance of each of the deaths in the area. Then they all rang it three more times, in honor of the Christian church's Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Ghost.
The Rev. Elizabeth Wheatley, who rang the bell first, offered no prayer or observations. The bell spoke for her.
Throughout the region, churches rang their bells at 9 a.m., an unofficial beginning to a day of memorial services and celebrations marking the solemn occasion.
Like virtually every other structure nearby, Christ Episcopal Church was wiped out by Katrina. Initially, the parish held services on the remaining concrete slab. Today, a Quonset hut houses the congregation. The heavily damaged bell tower is now operational enough to do its duty on special occasions.
One year ago today, most of these congregants were far away, wondering if their friends had evacuated, and if their houses would survive. The bad news was still ahead of them.
After the service, the group swapped where-were-you Katrina stories, and insurance frustration stories, which happens at nearly every public gathering here.
Dootsie Murphy of Bay St. Louis was just glad her church could come together for the occasion.
"It has been a long year," she said.
Camille also displaced congregation
Hurricane Katrina was not the first storm to chase Christ Episcopal Church. Camille, in 1969, also destroyed the church building, forcing the congregation to uproot to this spot.
That means people in this congregation here know they can recover from destruction, and they have set about doing just that. Despite the challenges, they haven’t missed a Sunday service since Katrina. And they don’t plan to.
The rest of the day Tuesday was set aside for more services and celebrations marking the anniversary.
The observances began with a candelight vigil for Katrina victims Monday night on a tennis court next to the Holy Trinity Catholic School, a ceremony that began with the passing of a flame accompanied by a solemn reading of the names of the dead but soon took on a more upbeat tone.
Joel Bowman, 4, right, and his brother John, 5, attend a Bay St. Louis candlelight vigil Monday night for those who lost their lives to Hurricane Katrina. The Bowman family evacuated to Houston when Katrina hit, but came back when Hurricane Rita headed for Houston. (Robert Hood / MSNBC.com)
Bay St. Louis City Councilman James Thriffiley gave a talk titled "Inspirational Words," and told the group that they should be proud to have come this far, proud their community is on the road to recovery
"Give yourselves a hand," he urged them, before realizing that wasn't good advice to a candle-holding crowd.
The levity level escalated from there. There has already been plenty of occasion for tears.
Sign-along lightens mood
After uniformed children sang the new school song, teacher Connie Heitzman led the crowd in a sing-along. It included “When the Saints Go Marching In,” compete with a single-file student march around the crowd with an umbrella-toting girl leading the way. A half-hearted rendition of the “Barney Song” followed.
Soon after, a closing prayer restored order.
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