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Photo Credit: David Carson | St. Louis Post-Dispatch

‘God is with us’

In a virtual replay of floods in the final week of December 2015, flooding along the Meramec River, its tributaries and the Mississippi River inundated the St. Louis area in the first week of May, closing Interstates 44 and 55 and turning Eureka and Fenton into islands. Homes and businesses from Pacific and points west to Arnold in the south and beyond were devasted.

Just as in 2015, Catholic St. Louis' parishes opened their hearts and souls, serving their fellow man wherever and with whatever needed in either organized efforts or individual efforts done in the Catholic Way — without fanfare; good works for the sake of good works.

In Pacific, parents and teachers from St. Bridget of Kildare School worked to save the home of a pre-kindergarten student. They sandbagged all day on April 29, then operated a pump as the water rose.

"Keep them in your prayers," stated Pam Manuel of the parish office.

A similar request came from Eureka.

"Whisper a little prayer for us," Most Sacred Heart pastor Father Joseph Kempf said.

At Sacred Heart Parish in Valley Park, pastor Father Tom Haley opened the school, closed by the flooding, for the U.S. Postal Service to use as its operations center. The post office and residents had evacuated from the low lying city center, which is protected by a huge floodwall but saw a crest just below 2015's 44.1 feet, cresting this year at 43.3 feet. In addition, businesses, including the nonprofit Circle of Concern food pantry, used the parish's parking lot as a staging area.

Such giving responses lifted Father Kempf's spirits.

"It's just so moving to see people jumping in and working side-by-side; it helps me with this great sadness to be buoyed by these people working together," he said. "We can't stop this rain and these rivers, but we're going to do everything we can for each other and we're doing it together.

"It makes me smile in the midst of that part of me that feels like crying."

The flooding had the look and feel of the flooding in 2015.

"One of our staff members put it well: 'It's like getting hit by a truck in slow motion,'" Father Kempf said May 3. "These past few days you could feel the truck coming. We already knew what it feels like to get hit by this truck. It hurt a lot of people last time, it was going to hit us again and we couldn't stop it. I feel great sadness for folks whose homes and businesses were flooded in December 2015, and who are facing all of that again."

Father Kempf was struck by the eerie sound similar to 2015 of "no traffic on Highway 44 punctuated by all the helicopters getting aerial footage of the flooding."

Most Sacred Heart School closed on May 1 and remained closed through the flood emergency, but the school cafeteria stayed open. Staffers arrived in the early morning to prepare meals and serve first-responders and volunteers.

The parish grounds are just up the hill from old town Eureka, which was devastated by flooding in 2015 and where sandbagging efforts began on May 1. Missouri National Guardsmen brought front loaders and other equipment to the heavy lifting, but manual labor was still required of volunteers, who shoveled sand into the bags or formed long lines to pass them around buildings.

"It is so beautiful to see people realizing 'we are in this together,'" said Father Kempf, who witnessed this in person as a volunteer filling bags. "I just helped a little; it felt like so little. But it was encouraging to me there were so many people helping, of every faith tradition, young and old, all working together and adjusting on the fly. It was a little case of the kingdom of heaven, really. Life is hard and we're in it together."

With advanced warning, Father Kempf and associate pastor Father Leo Spezia were able to make the call for volunteers at Masses on April 29 and 30. Numerous parishioners helped with the sandbagging of downtown businesses, which are owned by parishioners as well. Many parishioners were stranded in their subdivisions, while others had to evacuate ahead of rising water.

The parish's St. Vincent de Paul Society helped with that effort, as did random individuals "with 100s and 100s of individual moments of outreach, people with trucks getting neighbors they know and don't know out of their homes," said Father Kempf, who plans a special collection at each Mass on Mother's Day weekend. After the flood 16 months ago, a similar weekend effort raised $12,000 for flood relief. 

"I can't even tell how beautiful it is in midst of all of this devastation to see people jumping in side-by-side," Father Kempf said. "It's sad, it's beautiful and God is with us. It's clear God is with us because of the goodness of so many people." 

This map shows the parishes that bordered the eastern portion of the Meremec River with the location of the main roads and interstates that were affected by the flooding. Map courtesy of John Schwob, Director of Pastoral Planning.

RELATED ARTICLE(S):Catholic agencies reaching people affected by flooding

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