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Members of the Weatherbee family salvage their belongings from their destroyed home in Mayfield, Kentucky Dec. 13, in the aftermath of a tornado that ripped through the town.
Members of the Weatherbee family salvage their belongings from their destroyed home in Mayfield, Kentucky Dec. 13, in the aftermath of a tornado that ripped through the town.
Photo Credit: Adrees Latif | Reuters

Relief efforts for tornado victims show ‘Church at its best’

At least 88 people have died following tornadoes that damaged parts of six states Dec. 10-11


Catholic Charities of the USA is collecting donations to assist victims of the tornadoes Dec. 10-11. Donate at www.catholiccharitiesusa.org/

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — St. Jerome Church in Fancy Farm, Kentucky, became a makeshift shelter for storm survivors over the Dec. 11-12 weekend and shifted Dec. 13 to become a distribution site for relief supplies.

Four tornadoes, including one that carved a 225-mile-long path through four states, struck devastating blows to western Kentucky overnight Dec. 10. The twisters left whole communities in shambles.

Mayfield and Dawson Springs, Kentucky, were all but destroyed by the storms. Catholic churches in both towns suffered heavy damage.

As of Dec. 14, at least 74 people were confirmed dead in the Bluegrass State, according to Gov. Andy Beshear. Search and rescue efforts were still underway. Fourteen people were confirmed dead in other states, including one in Defiance, Missouri, and six at an Amazon warehouse in Edwardsville, Illinois.

Twelve miles from Mayfield, St. Jerome has responded with the spirit of Gaudete Sunday, said Sister Martha Keller, an Ursuline Sister of Mount St. Joseph, Kentucky, who is pastoral associate of St. Jerome.

“This is Church at its best,” she said, speaking through tears after recounting the losses people have suffered. “People are talking about Christmas and what we can do. But this is Church at its best.

“This weekend was Gaudete Sunday (which means ‘rejoice’). We can rejoice because there are people being Christ for each other,” she told The Record, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Louisville.

Early Dec. 11, the morning after the tornadoes hit, the parish hall began housing families who survived the storms but who lost their homes — a total of 25 people.

Volunteers made sandwiches at Redemption City Church in downtown Dawson Springs, Kentucky Dec. 13, after tornadoes ripped through several U.S. states. The church building was converted into a night shelter and supply waypoint by locals looking to offer aid in the affected region.
Photo Credit: Jon Cherry | Reuters
By Dec. 13, Sister Keller said St. Jerome, located in Graves County, received direction from the American Red Cross. The parish hall, ill-suited to provide long-term shelter, is shifting to a distribution site for supplies.

She noted that people are most in need of money, particularly in the form of Visa gift cards that can be used anywhere.

“We’ve been trying to get Visa cards so they can get gas, hotels, clothes. They don’t want donated clothes because we don’t know sizes” and getting the right sizes to the right people would not be feasible, she said.

Volunteering to help in St. Charles County

Parishioners of Immaculate Conception in Augusta and Immaculate Heart of Mary in New Melle were among those who helped with the cleanup and a collection for victims of the EF-3 tornado that hit near Defiance in St. Charles County Dec. 10. One fatality occurred and multiple homes and farms suffered varying degrees of property damage along Highway F to Highway 94.

Connie Struckhoff, parish council chair of Immaculate Conception, said people responded right away. Some parishioners are part of the volunteer fire department that responded and others brought gift cards and other items to a collection, she said.

A parishioner, Tom Aholt, had chili left over from the Annual Candlelight Christmas Walk the men’s club at the parish served on the Town Square until the event was cut short by the weather. He then brought it to volunteers helping with the cleanup.

The New Melle community organized similar efforts. Laura Orf, business manager of Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish, said the food pantry at the parish is available for people affected by the tornado who need help, though collections brought more than is needed at this time.

Joe Tersteeg, an Immaculate Heart of Mary parishioner, was one of the many people from New Melle and the parish who responded. On his day off, he helped by making phone calls regarding storage of items that were donated. “The whole community pitched in and did so much. It’s just incredible,” he said.

Erin Cox, a New Melle resident, used social media to post about the needs. The response was so overwhelming that people were asked to stop donating and tractor-trailers of items from California and Michigan were rerouted to Kentucky. Within 12 hours of her post, $7,000 was raised and 20 tubs of clothes, bikes, Christmas presents, kitchen supplies and more came to her house. The New Melle firehouse also was the site for donations. The vast majority of donations came from the New Melle/Defiance area, Cox said.

Plans were for some items to be distributed later; funds, gift cards and Christmas presents were to be distributed to affected households soon.

Catholic Charities of St. Louis President Theresa Ruzicka said “recovery from the tornadoes that tore through the heartland of our country will be a very long process. We stand with our brothers and sisters in the impacted areas, to help in whatever way we can. Right now, we are waiting for more information on the local, state and national level.”

Prayer, donations help recover efforts

Mourning, prayer and a resolve to rebuild shattered lives, homes and businesses was evident in Mayfield, Kentucky, one of the worst hit areas by the tornadoes. The city of 10,000 in western Kentucky was leveled Dec. 10.

As members of two of Mayfield’s faith congregations came together to pray Dec. 12 amid rubble — piles of brick, metal and glass — prayers for their city and all of those affected by the ferocious mid-December twisters came from far and wide, including from Pope Francis and the U.S. Catholic bishops, and from close to home — Bishop William F. Medley of Owensboro, whose diocese covers western Kentucky.

A papal telegram conveyed by Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican secretary of state, said Pope Francis “was saddened to learn of the devastating impact of the tornadoes” in the Midwest and the South.

“He offers heartfelt prayers that almighty God will grant eternal peace to those who have died, comfort to those who mourn their loss, and strength to all those affected by this immense tragedy,” said the telegram, which Cardinal Parolin sent to Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the apostolic nuncio in the U.S.

Archbishop José H. Gomez of Los Angeles, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Archbishop Paul S. Coakley of Oklahoma City, chairman of the USCCB’s Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, said the destruction and devastation was “heartbreaking” and called for prayer and assistance for all those who were in the path of the storms.

“During this Advent season where we await in joyful anticipation for the birth of our Lord, we pray for those who have been injured, for those who have lost their lives, and for their grieving families and communities,” said Archbishops Gomez and Coakley. “May those who have been impacted by these storms find peace, comfort and hope in our faith and in God’s endless love.

The two prelates urged Catholics and all people of goodwill to donate to recovery efforts and financial help for tornado victims by supporting the work of Catholic Charities USA: www.catholiccharities.us.

“Many of those injured in the Mayfield candle factory were parishioners, and others represented migrants and the marginalized in our communities,” Bishop Medley said in his statement.

He added that through its Catholic Charities office, the diocese planned “to offer immediate help and services” for those displaced by the tornado and/or need immediate emergency financial help.

At a news briefing Dec. 12 in Mayfield, Kentucky, Gov. Andy Beshear noted one tornado traveled 227 miles. “The very first thing that we have to do is grieve together,” he said, “and we’re going to do that before we rebuild together.”

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