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Tornadoes devastate areas across six states

MAYFIELD KENTUCKY TORNADO

Brandon Bell | GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA | AFP

John Burger - published on 12/14/21 - updated on 12/14/21

Church in Kentucky serving as shelter and distribution center as locals pick up the pieces.

Thousands of families across six states are starting to pick up the pieces following a catastrophic storm system that spawned deadly tornadoes late last week. Some of those families have suffered the loss of loved ones. Many have had their homes completely destroyed. Hundreds of thousands of people will be without basic comforts for the holidays.

Several tornadoes touched down in Kentucky — one of them traveling for more than 200 miles. Mayfield, a city of 10,000 people, was one of the places hit particularly hard. Workers — some of whom were local Catholic parishioners — were trapped when a tornado demolished a candle factory there. By Monday, the death toll in the factory stood at eight. 

Fr. Darrell Venters, pastor of St. Jerome’s parish in Fancy Farm, Kentucky, said that St. Joseph’s Spanish Mass was held at his church on Sunday, which was the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Bishop William F. Medley of Owensboro, who was visiting local temporary shelters, and Fr. Eric Riley, pastor of St. Joseph, joined some 200 people who were present.

In a December 12 tweet, Bishop Medley said he visited St. Joseph’s and that Fr. Riley “preached on the Advent and Our Lady of Guadalupe themes of hope and joy.”

Fancy Farm is about nine miles west of Mayfield and was not as badly affected by the storm, Fr. Venters said. He said Monday afternoon that Mayfield was still without electricity and water. Aleteia was not able to reach the Mayfield church by phone, but Fr. Venters said that there was storm damage to the church, the former parish school building and the St. Vincent de Paul center there. 

St. Jerome’s is acting as a receiving and distribution center for relief supplies. “People are bringing supplies, and parishioners are taking them out to other areas that are affected,” Fr. Venters said. “We were a temporary shelter for three nights. We had about 24 people staying here,” including people from assisted living facilities. Volunteers were feeding them, and the Red Cross brought in cots. “We are in the process today of moving them to another shelter just because they want to consolidate services,” the pastor said.

Catholic Charities

Bishop Medley said that the Diocese of Owensboro, through its Catholic Charities office, wants to offer immediate help and services for those who are displaced or who have immediate emergency financial aid. He called for a special collection at parish Masses over the weekend. 

Kim Burgo, vice president of disaster response for Catholic Charities USA, said in an interview that the Catholic Charities office in Owensboro, along with partners like the Knights of Columbus and the St. Vincent de Paul Society, has a number of distribution sites at parishes “so they can begin to respond to some of the critical needs.” But with search-and-rescue and search-and-recovery operations continuing, Burgo said, it’s still “very difficult for us to get into the area to provide that early response service that we normally do.”

“We have to see what happened, how bad it is and what it is we can provide,” she said. “So right now we’re gathering information.” Initial provisions could include anything from hygiene kits, food, and water to uncommon items like plastic bins so people can pack up whatever they can find left at their property. Or backpacks and school supplies for kids. 

But it’s clear that the devastation is so bad — Mayfield is like “matchsticks,” she said — that recovery could take three to five years. 

“This is also a very poor area,” Burgo added. “It’s going to be very difficult for folks who were hit to recover.”

In the long term, she said, Catholic Charities will maintain a presence in the areas that were hit to “begin to provide case management services to help a family build a recovery plan so they can return to that state of normalcy they once had — and hopefully a better state than they had before.”

A message on St. Joseph’s parish website said, “We are overwhelmed by the prayers and offers of charity. At this time we are busy assisting those we can, and are unable to answer emails etc. If you would like to make a monetary donation to help the western Kentucky parishes or through them to help those affected by the tornado, please contact Tom Lilly at the McRaith Catholic Center at the Diocese of Owensboro 270-683-1545 or tom.lilly@pastoral.org. At this time we are unable to have outside volunteers due to no water electricity or facilities. For Mayfield residents, we have water, clothing, blankets, some food at the parish center 700 W Broadway from 10 to 4. On Tuesday 12/13 there will be hot food available from 10-4.”

“Miracle stories”

Fr. David Kennedy, who oversees three churches in the Diocese of Owensboro, reported that one of them, Resurrection in Dawson Springs, had its roof torn off and suffered structural damage in the tornado, which hit at about 8:40 p.m. on Friday.

“We’re taking everything out of it, and we’ll have to see if we have to rebuild it and how we can rebuild it,” he said. “Some of the structure has been damaged, so we don’t really know. We might have to rebuild it all the way.”

No one was there when it happened. Deacon Michael Marsili arrived at the church the next morning and took the Blessed Sacrament to a safer place. 

No parishioners were hurt or killed, Fr. Kennedy said. A couple of parishioners reported what they called “miracle stories.”

One happened to Larry Fanning, who was in his house when the tornado came onto the back of his property. It knocked off the top of his barn and then circled his house without hitting his truck, which had wood stacked up in it. “It then went on down the road and knocked down a whole bunch of trees,” Fr. Kennedy said.

He added that a couple, Ella Smith and her husband Ron, the church’s sacristan, were in the hall in their house. When the tornado hit they were knocked to the floor. Debris fell on top of them, but they were able to get up and were perfectly fine, even though their house was destroyed. They went back to look for papers the next day but there was nothing left where their home once stood, Fr. Kennedy said.

By Monday afternoon, the death toll stood at 88, including 74 in Kentucky alone. More than 100 were still missing. 

Fr. Randy Howard of Holy Spirit Church in Bowling Green, Kentucky, told Aleteia that in spite of losing power for 12 hours, his parish was not as badly affected. At least one parishioner, an immigrant from Myanmar, lost his home, he said, and was staying with another parishioner. 

Papal condolences

Other states affected were Arkansas, Illinois, Mississippi, Missouri and Tennessee. Officials in Edwardsville, Illinois, a small city across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, said that at least six people had been killed at an Amazon delivery hub warehouse.

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 Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, said in a statement that it was “heartbreaking to see the destruction and devastation brought by the tornadoes.”

“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,” the bishops said. “May those who have been impacted by these storms find peace, comfort, and hope in our faith and in God’s endless love. We also pray for the emergency responders and those who have begun the work of providing for the needs of the impacted in these communities in the recovery efforts. We entrust all our brothers and sisters in harm’s way to our Blessed Mother, and we ask for her continued protection and for her intercession in comforting those who are suffering.”

Archbishops Gomez and Coakley encouraged people to donate to Catholic Charities USA.

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.”

“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,” it said.

“With gratitude for the tireless efforts of the rescue workers and all engaged in caring for the injured, the grieving families and those left homeless, Pope Francis invokes upon all engaged in the massive work of relief and rebuilding the Lord’s gifts of strength and generous perseverance in the service of their brothers and sisters,” said the telegram, which Cardinal Parolin sent to Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the apostolic nuncio in the U.S.

Ways to help out

Here are some places where concerned readers can help victims of last week’s tornadoes with their financial donations:
Catholic Charities USA
Diocese of Owensboro, Kentucky, disaster relief fund
St. Vincent de Paul Society
Food for the Poor
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