When we think of Fr. Christopher Senk’s fourteen-and-a-half untroubled years as pastor of St. Isabel parish, we would consider the following to be among his greatest accomplishments:
- There is no doubt that the rebuilding of St. Isabel Church, after its destruction by Hurricane Charley, is his greatest accomplishment. During his first year at St. Isabel, Fr. Christopher finished up the projects already begun by his predecessor; some cosmetic changes to the existing structure and the replacement of the old roof. Fr. Christopher remembers being warned by the contractor that there was a high likelihood that the new roof would not survive a storm, however the project was already underway. In August of 2004, Hurricane Charley proved that to be true when the new roof was largely torn apart, and over a million dollars worth of improvements went down the drain. With the help of islanders and friends, Fr. Christopher began the clean-up process as soon as people were allowed back on the island. When the power was restored a week after the storm, he returned to living at the rectory and began the process of figuring out how the parish could rebuild the church. Everything that wasn’t permanently damaged was moved into the Church hall or placed in storage. The hall had minimal damage by comparison, and, after having that roof repaired, Fr. Christopher and staff rearranged things in the hall. It was clear in a very short time that the hall was going to have to function as the church, staff offices, and social center for a fairly long time to come, although Fr. Christopher could never have envisioned that the reconstruction would take well over three years. Since Fr. Christopher was starting over with very little more than the footprint of the building, he needed a vision for a new church, which would ultimately improve the many shortcomings of the old space to the extent that the City of Sanibel would allow. He dreamt big, and officially started a rebuilding fund drive in January of 2005, offering parishioners various ways in which they could help by funding everything from the pews to the bronze artwork. Great care was taken to oversee the production of new doors and windows, and in the making of innumerable choices of paint colors, fabrics, tile, fixtures, air conditioning, ceiling type, organ improvements, etc. Control issues by the Diocese caused numerous delays in construction, and, since everything was taking longer than expected, Fr. Christopher constantly encouraged the parish community not to lose heart. With little more than expressing the need, Fr. Christopher was able to raise the nearly seven million dollars that it took to rebuild the church, leaving St. Isabel Parish with no burdensome debt on the day when the first Mass in the new church was celebrated. It was during the rebuild, when it was clear that the funds would be available, that the decision was made to put two generators on the property, capable of preserving the buildings from further harm after a hurricane.
- Not unconnected with the rebuilding of the church, was Fr. Christopher’s revisioning of the Church’s property and parking areas. St. Isabel had gone on City Water & Sewer several years before 2004. The large septic system, which made a great deal of space largely unusable, was obsolete, and Fr. Christopher realized it’s removal could provide the church with a better and more civilized parking plan. Fr. Christopher’s vision of the new church included having parking and property that would be welcoming and peaceful, and so his parish “wish list” included religious art that could be placed in park-like and prayerful surroundings. The addition of parking islands and lighting, as well as the addition of some two thousand new and varied trees and shrubs, helped to accomplish the goal of creating a more welcoming space outside of the church. Indeed, the parishioners of St. Isabel, just as they had with the vision of the church, embraced the landscape vision, funding all those improvements which Fr. Christopher knew would make such a difference in the day-to-day life of the parish. The parishioners were justifiably proud of what had been done. It was also at this time that Fr. Christopher made considerable improvements to the parish’s Memorial Garden, upgrading all of it to a level that our beloved deceased deserved.
- Fr. Christopher brought to the parish community his intellectual and liturgical gifts; gifts nurtured in a Benedictine monastery for some 27 years. It was those gifts which assisted the rebuilding project, and which enabled so many to often comment that St. Isabel’s church was the “warmest and most welcoming church they had ever been in.” The celebration of the Eucharist was always reverent without being rigid, and people always left church with something to mull over for the rest of the week. Fr. Christopher’s preaching skills were outstanding. People would often say to him, “Father, you provided the topic of conversation for our Sunday after-Mass brunch,” which he always considered to be the highest of compliments.
- Fr. Christopher was always the first to admit that he wasn’t particularly gifted in the realm of finance, and he often sought out the help of parishioners whose talents included dealing with financial matters. This was especially the case in the days following Hurricane Charley when Fr. Christopher sought out the advice of parishioners more versed in the details of finance. It was largely that group that would become He first official Finance Council after the rebuilding was compete. Fr. Christopher is rightly proud that there was never a deficit during his years at St. Isabel, even during the more than three years it took to rebuild the church. Not only was St. Isabel able to pay all it’s bills, but every year Fr. Christopher was also able to raise the additional requested funds for the Catholic (Bishop’s) Faith Appeal. Working hard to have the church’s annual fund raiser a success, Fr. Christopher also helped to raise 10-25 thousand dollars of the total funds collected every year at the annual Ball by offering dinners at the rectory. While those dinners at the rectory were financially successful, they also enabled a new familiarity with the parishioners that was a valuable resource – not only did Fr. Chris get to know parishioners better, but they also grew to know their pastor better. Those “positive feelings,” although intangible, are real and incredibly invaluable.
- A Parish Finance Council was first established under the tenure of Fr. Christopher, for financial oversight. It was clear to Fr. Christopher that the advice of talented parishioners was necessary to guide and safeguard the financial wellbeing of the parish.
- A Men’s Society was established under Fr. Christopher’s tenure. It was parishioner Gerry Risch who first raised the possibility of establishing a group of men in the parish, who, not unlike the long-established Women’s Guild, could be a support for the overall life of the parish. It’s purposes were threefold: to nurture the spiritual life of the parish, to support the pastor and the parish, and to reach out to organizations and people in the broader community who needed additional help and assistance. After establishing goals and writing bylaws, a Men’s Society was founded by Fr. Christopher, and from its inception it has enjoyed great success and been an incredible source of support to the parish and the local community.
- The first Men’s retreats were begun during the tenure of Fr. Christopher. In order to enhance the spiritual life of the parish community, the newly formed Men’s Society requested the possibility of a two-day retreat away from the parish property. It was a grass roots interest that caused Fr. Christopher to offer to the men of the parish a two-day retreat at the Diocesan Retreat Center in Venice. Fr. Christopher directed those first retreats, and all who attended considered them extraordinarily successful. The numbers on this annual event increased every year during Fr. Christopher’s leadership. This also brought people together in a serene setting who might never have had the opportunity to meet other parishioners. The retreats resulted in many new friendships. While there was an additional cost to individuals, the Men’s Society provided for those who might not have attended because of the fees.
- After the rebuilding of St. Isabel was accomplished, Fr. Christopher established Parish Trips which afforded the opportunity of travel through Europe with other parishioners. Most often these trips almost took on the nature of a pilgrimage, with Masses celebrated in numerous churches throughout all of Europe. Particularly noteworthy for parishioners on the 2010 trip to Italy was the Mass celebrated by Fr. Christopher in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
- During the years Fr. Christopher was pastor, the social life of the parish community was greatly enhanced, something some might desire to turn into a negative thing, rather than to recognize the very positive thing that it was. Parishioners got to know one another better, and the numbers of men and women in their respective societies grew. Parishioners came to truly care about one another. The formal and informal functions in the Church rectory, a building the parish paid for, caused people to have a closeness to their pastor and to their parish. It was often heard in the early days “I’ve been part of this parish for twenty years, and I have never been in the rectory,” or “I never heard the priest call me by name.” The entire parish community felt connected to one another, something most evident in times of loss or hardship. Having an entire parish feel like “family” was not just a good thing, it was a great thing, and Fr. Christopher encouraged that to happen.
- While the parish of St. Isabel was never snobbish, there were very recognizable and distinct groups of people within the parish. During Fr. Christopher’s time as pastor, those barriers separating people all but disappeared. People who were unaccustomed to sitting down at a table with other people found themselves often making new friends. This was invaluable, especially at the times when the Church needed help setting things up or decorating. At one time, the time of Fr. Christopher’s pastorate, the church was never at a loss for volunteers.
- A Pro-Life Committee was first established under the tenure of Fr. Christopher. His pro-life homilies were famous, and were often requested by parishioners to send to other priests and parishes. Visitors would often state that “I’ve been a member of my home parish for twenty years and I have never heard a pro-life homily spoken from the pulpit!” Fr. Christopher’s pro-life talks became so well known, that he received an invitation every year from the Knights and Dames of Malta in Naples to go to Naples to celebrate a Mass and preach about pro-life issues. Fr. Christopher was also responsible in directing the support of the Men’s and Women’s groups to the local Community Pregnancy Centers where their generosity did a great deal of good.
- Although it was something that came rather naturally to Fr. Christopher, having little family of his own in the area, Father’s invitations to share holiday dinners at the rectory, with parishioners who were going to be alone, or nearly alone, was a marvelous thing for the parish. At those dinners, various people were brought together who might never have gotten to know one another. It was something that grew to 50+ people, for whether he knew them or not, all someone had to do was say, “You know Sally is alone for Thanksgiving,” and that would be enough for her to receive an invitation to dinner. This too helped in building a genuine “family” within the parish community. It is worth noting that Pope Francis might see Fr. Christopher’s effort as an exercise of “getting the smell of sheep” on him!
There are surely more accomplishments of Fr. Christopher’s which are not noted here. Perhaps some of those might be seen in the Testimonials section on the PFJ website. What has been stated above is meant to remind us of the reasons why Fr. Christopher continues to be so seriously missed by the majority of parishioners, and how much we have to be grateful for. This list of accomplishments also points to the need of continuing to work for Fr. Christopher’s return to St. Isabel. Only with Fr. Christopher’s return can his name be exonerated, his reputation restored, and peace once again reign in the parish.