In Key West, locals try to pray away hurricanes
Kay Thomas knows she can’t do much when a hurricane is approaching the Florida Keys.
She can stock up on supplies, evacuate from the island chain, or ride it out like she did during 2017’s Hurricane Irma — which spared her hometown of Key West but severely damaged Keys neighborhoods to the north.
But there is one thing she does at the start of each hurricane season: pray.
“That’s about the best I can do,” Thomas said. “I feel better even though I know that just me alone, I’m not moving mountains.”
Every June 1, locals like Thomas flock to an Old Town church in an effort to pray away storms from directly striking the island.
The candles flicker in an outdoor space at The Basilica of St. Mary Star of the Sea, 1010 Windsor Lane, called the Grotto.
Thomas, who describes herself as a spiritual seeker rather than religious, offers a prayer every month, from June 1 through the end of November.
“I light one at the beginning and then as they begin to manifest the Grotto gets extra candles,” Thomas said. “It makes me feel like I can do something.”
The Grotto is formally called Our Lady of Lourdes Grotto, which dates back to 1922 and honors Sister Louis Gabriel.
Key West lore says the candle prayer ritual works when it comes to staving off hurricanes from the tiny island. A major storm hasn’t struck the island since the Grotto was created.
Hurricane Wilma swamped the island in 2005 and Hurricane Georges came across in 1998. But the island has been spared — so far.
At the time of the Grotto’s installation, Sister Gabriel had lived on the island since 1897 and had survived three major hurricanes, including the 1919 direct hit that left destruction across Key West.
Apparently, Sister Gabriel always said that as long as the Grotto was standing, “Key West would never experience the full brunt of a hurricane.”
After one horrible season in the early 2000s, one local shop put up a sign that read, “Canes 0, Grotto 3,” locals remember.
Still, plenty of Key West residents know from experience that prayers aren’t always enough to keep hurricanes at bay.
Dina DiMartino lost her home and her entire neighborhood to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 when she lived in a New Orleans suburb, St. Bernard Parish, where the levee system failed.
“The biggest part was losing where I grew up,” DiMartino said. “I go back and visit, but St. Bernard will never be the same. It’s such a small community like Key West. All the other stuff was just stuff.”
DiMartino, 48, a Louisiana native who taught school for 12 years before Katrina and then ran a security business, learned about the Grotto when she moved to Key West in 2012.
“I go with my three candles and make a donation and pray hard to keep our community protected,” she said. “I’ve done that every June 1. But I have to say, the days before Irma I went there a little bit more.”
The numbers of praying locals grew larger as Irma approached, she remembers.
“I grew up Catholic but have explored other thing,” DiMartino said of her spirituality. “I’m open-minded, not deeply religious. I’m a very superstitious person. I don’t know if that comes with growing up in New Orleans.”
One Key West bar lights its own devotional candle every June 1 and keeps it in a handmade wooden cabinet, next to a shutter adorned with Benjamin Franklin inside the front door.
The Green Parrot, 601 Whitehead St., keeps its candle “ready to be whisked off to the Grotto at St. Mary’s on a moment’s notice,” the bar posted on Facebook this month.
Thomas, 75 a Nebraska native who moved from Connecticut to Key West 30 years ago, also believes in the power of prayer.
“I believe in the positive energy and the goodness of man,” she said. “Somewhere in most people is a scintilla of good.”
Thomas added she has no problem with anyone who disagrees with her idea of prayer.
“I’m comfortable with atheists as long as they’re not trying to sell me on how I should feel,” she said. ”I can pray hard enough for five people.”