Downtown Gulfport Church Rebuilding On Beachfront

"I think it was and will be one of the most beautiful churches on the Mississippi Gulf Coast," said The Rev. Edward O'Conner.

Fr. O'Conner is the rector of St. Peter's by-the sea Episcopal Church in Gulfport. The church is coming back brighter and bigger.

"We've expanded the transepts on both sides for about 125 additional seating," Fr. O'Conner explained.

Fr. O'Conner sees one miracle after another, as he walks through what was once a disaster zone. Katrina washed out the sanctuary, from the ground up to about 30 feet.

"Oddly enough, our stained glass windows. They were not destroyed and remained intact," Fr. O'Conner said.

"While we have been pushed right at and perhaps beyond our limits, we have thrived and the church is literally and metaphorically still standing," he said.

Also remaining are the 300-families who call the steel-framed structure their spiritual home. That's why members are so determined to restore the beachfront church.

"We are trying to be who God is calling us to be and that is a downtown church with a presence and ministry in this downtown area," Fr. O'Conner said.

Even visitors appreciate the church's recovery. Volunteers from New Jersey saw the mess when they visited St. Peter's exactly a year ago.

"Our hearts drew us back here," said Lynn Schambach of St. Mary's by-the-sea Episcopal Church in Point Pleasant Beach, N.J. "It's just great to see that there's this much progress and hopefully next year, when we're back, we can pray here and worship here."

After waiting for almost two years to come back home, the congregation will be getting a very big Christmas gift. That's because the church is supposed to be finished by December, just in time for Christmas Eve service.

"The church may not be completely finished, but we're going to worship in our home church to celebrate the birth of Christ," said Fr. O'Conner. "That's a very exciting thing to hang your hats on."

Work on the Parish Hall will have to wait until the church is finished. Meantime, the congregation will continue to worship at Handsboro Presbyterian Church on East Pass Road.