Carlton: The cross atop the church that moved, and other strange tales from Hurricane Irma

Published September 20 2017

Down in Miami, the famous tan-don't-burn Coppertone Girl on the side of a building lost her head — part of it, at least, the top of her blond hair lopped off in the fierce winds of Hurricane Irma. ("At least her tan line and doggie weathered the storm," the Miami Herald noted optimistically.)

In Key West, Irma hit so hard that she blasted the paint right off the Southernmost marker where surely a billion tourists have posed for pictures.

Amid all the downed trees and acres of branches, the smashed roofs, leveled fences and powerless houses — in the destruction and even death from a hurricane that spared us its worst — Irma left behind some intriguing sights.

Spiritual ones, even, if you are inclined to be swayed by the story of the church cross in Tampa that turned in the night. More on that in a minute.

Much of the damage around here is, thankfully, down to leafy piles at the curb and workers busy building new fences. But there is still plenty to show Irma's ferocity and her utter contrariness, hitting here and not there, sparing an oak to take down a pine.

Highway billboards are reduced to framed tatters that flutter in the wind, the faces of smug lawyers and pictures of cheap burgers obliterated. In Tampa, without rhyme or reason, Irma plucked the steeple clean off a small church. In Pinellas Park, a colleague took a photograph of a downed beehive shaped distinctly like a broken heart. Even if you're not prone to, say, finding the image of a religious figure when you look at a potato chip, it was pretty striking.

And then there is what happened at St. John's Episcopal Church that very scary Sunday night.

Established more than a century ago as St. John's By The Sea, it is a graceful and prominent church not far off Bayshore Boulevard in Hyde Park, one of the city's prettiest neighborhoods. Atop its bell tower, its highest point, they put up a cross that is illuminated at night and faces due west toward St. Petersburg.

The morning after Irma's blessed exit, when the rain had stopped and the curfew was lifted, people from the church did what pretty much everyone was doing: They walked around checking for damage. Thankfully, there was little to worry about.

Then someone saw it up above.

The cross had turned.

Now it faced due south instead of west, over the houses and trees and directly toward the bay waters you can see from the church sidewalk.

"It still lights up," Father Chip Connelly reports when I call about the cross and its new direction.

"How it happened, I don't know," he said, "and why it happened, I don't know."

I ask about something like divine intervention, and he says he doesn't know about that. Maybe it's a reminder about trusting God in the midst of great difficulties, he says.

And yes, other theories have circulated about why the cross turned toward the water — beyond the whimsical brutality of a hurricane. Maybe it's to hold the water back, people have said. Maybe it's a greater power protecting us.

"It's a nice thought," says Father Connelly. "And who knows, it could be true." A nice thought doesn't seem like the worst thing at the moment.

For now, he says, they will leave the cross as it is, facing the water. And then see what the world brings next.

Contact Sue Carlton at [email protected]