Archdiocesan priest Father Tom Kirchhoefer celebrated Sunday Mass as usual, but Sunday, Sept. 10, was anything but usual.
Father Kirchhoefer described the scene as "surreal" in the lead-up to Hurricane Irma: homes and business boarded up, gas shortages, empty store shelves. And the hurricane still hadn't hit.
But with Irma bearing down on St. Petersburg, Fla., and headed toward Bay Pines VA Hospital, where he serves the Archdiocese for the Military Services as chaplain, it was time for the greatest prayer of the Catholic Church — the sacrifice of the Mass.
Catholic patients, staff and staff family members gathered in the chapel as Father Kirchhoefer calmed fears and offered reassurances, drawing inspiration from the final line in the Gospel reading for the day — Matthew 18:15-20
"'For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I;' I said, 'Ah, perfect," Father Kirchhoefer said by phone late Sunday morning, noting that Mass readings often address pertinent situations. "Years ago, I always thought about changing the readings and trying to find something (else), but by the grace of God, the readings almost always speak to the situation. God is there."
Father Kirchhoefer and a Protestant chaplain ministered to about 800 people who were locked down at the hospital throughout the storm — about 100 patients, 400 staff and 300 family members. In the evening, before the hurricane hit, he led an ecumenical prayer over the public address system.
"Just for everyone to join together in prayer and thoughts, asking for everyone to be kept safe and for family and friends outside the hospital to be kept safe, too," he said the day after the storm, Sept. 12.
The worst of the hurricane started hitting at about 11 p.m. Sept. 10, but by then, it had moved inland about 50 miles and decreased in intensity. At one point, St. Petersburg was in the bulls-eye of a Category 4 hurricane. It ended up being skirted by a Cat 1.
The hospital escaped major damage but had damage to its roof and experienced some water leaks, prompting patients to be relocated "late at night ... during the storm," Father Kirchhoefer. The activity was similar to storm preparations in which hospital personnel evacuated patients for bus trips to VA facilities in safer areas.
"We were still pushing people out ... at midnight," he said.
After the ecumenical prayer, "you realized it was getting serious now," Father Kirchhoefer said. "We were constantly monitoring the storms."
With power from various cities and a backup generator, the VA facility was able to keep the lights on throughout the ordeal. Phone service also remained, though spotty at times.
The hospital remained closed until Sept. 13, as staff assessed damage, cleaned up impacted areas and reset equipment that had been moved to safety. With such a wide area impacted by the storm, the VA needed to get emergency and walk-in services up and running.
"People need to come back for medicine refills and to refrigerate items," said Father Kirchhoefer, noting that much of Pinellas County remained without power Sept. 12.
Father Kirchhoefer spent four consecutive days on duty at the hospital, with the exception of a small break to check out his home — no power but otherwise unscathed — and to check on a retired priest chaplain; a brother priest calling on a brother priest. After his shift at the VA, he volunteered as an Amateur Radio operator at the Pinellas County Emergency Operations Center.
Ordained in 1998 for the Archdiocese of St. Louis, Father Kirchhoefer has spent most of his priesthood assigned to the Military Archdiocese. He served 10 years as a chaplain in the U.S. Army, with combat stints in Afghanistan and Iraq. He's been a VA chaplain for the past three years, serving wounded or ill veterans from World War II to the present conflicts.
"I preached about that," he said in reference to the Sunday Mass. "There'd be incoming rocket fire and we'd go into a little bunker and hang out there," he said. "I've been through other harrowing experiences, so I'm not too worried."
His sense of calm reassured Catholics and others in the hospital, whether he met patients and staff "to spend a little time in prayer" or they stopped the collared man in black in the hallways to chat. He also got some shut-eye during the worst of the storm, showing the calm not only of a combat veteran but of a man who knows the Lord is by his side whether literally in the eye of a storm or otherwise.
"We've been blessed," Father Kirchhoefer said.
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Archbishop Robert J. Carlson is calling for another second collection in parishes of the archdiocese, this time to benefit victims of Hurricane Irma.
A second collection was held the past two weekends in parishes for victims of Hurricane Harvey in Texas and Louisiana.
"It is upsetting to see images of destruction from yet another violent hurricane on our shores and beyond," Archbishop Carlson wrote. "I know I speak for every person in the Archdiocese of St. Louis when I say how deeply saddened I am by the death and massive devastation experienced by our brothers and sisters in the South and throughout the Caribbean. ... Now, more than ever, we must look to our faith and ask the Lord to carry those who are suffering and who have lost so much."
Donations may be made to Catholic Charities of St. Louis and mailed to:
P.O. Box 952393, St. Louis, MO 63195-2393 (be sure to note Hurricane Harvey 2017 or Hurricane Irma 2017).
Donations also may be made through the Catholic Charities website: www.ccstl.org. (be sure to select either the Hurricane Harvey 2017 fund or Hurricane Irma 2017 fund).