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LITTLE FERRY, NEW JERSEY (PIX11) – It’s been almost a year since super storm Sandy flooded the town of Little Ferry, New Jersey and Saint Margaret of Cortona Church.

But after more than $1 million in repairs, the church finally reopened to the community Sunday.

“We’ve been through so much with the water from Sandy and Irene and I think it’s just fantastic that God has given us this day,” Rose Policastro said.

With the sun shining bright on parishioners, a procession led the congregation from the gym, where services have been held since December, to the new church.

Once inside, Bishop John Flesey blessed the building and congregation with holy water.

Pastor Kevin Carter compared the service to a rebirth for the community.

“It’s ironic how water for us, in spite of what it did for us, is still more of a symbol of life,” he said.

Life that echoed through the church as congregants filled the brand new pews and sang hymns to the heavens inside the church for the first time in months.

“I kind of look at it as the phoenix rising from the ashes, starting again anew,” said Ed Berta.

“What makes the rebuilding here at St. Margaret’s even more amazing is the fact that they were able to do so without any government funding.  You see right now churches aren’t able to apply for FEMA grants because of the separation of church and state, even though those organizations are usually the first to respond to a community after a disaster.”

“All too often it’s the churches, it’s the schools that become the centers for emergency response.  Where we are right now in Little Ferry outside of St. Margaret of Cortona, we’re standing in front of a building that was the first response center during the initial hours of hurricane Sandy,” said Jim Goodness, communications director of the Archdiocese of Newark.

But new legislation could make it possible for churches to apply for FEMA funding.  A bill sponsored by New Jersey Representative Chris Smith passed the House overwhelmingly back in February.  But a similar bill has stalled in the Senate.  Opponents of the bill say eligible facilities must be open to the general public.

In a statement, a Spokesperson for the group Americans United told us:

“A fundamental rule of American life is that congregants, not the taxpayers, pay for the construction and repair of houses of worship. We must not let a storm sweep away the wall of separation between church and state.”

But Goodness said that wall is washed away when churches step in to help with emergency response. And even if churches aren’t given the funding they request from FEMA, they should at least be given the chance to apply.

“All we’re asking is that we be given the opportunity, like every other non-profit or other civic organization, when there’s a devastation to apply for grants and prove we need the money to restore ourselves because we are essential to the operation of the community,” he said.

Though St. Margaret and many other churches were able to recover after Sandy, without some funding help Goodness says they might not be able to provide the same support for the community or rebuild in the future.