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A wintry mix of rain, snow and grace

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Frank Crissey trudged through the snow around his elderly mother’s home in Dumfries the evening of Jan. 3, clearing fallen branches as he went. After making sure his mother had food and power, at 7:30 p.m. he headed home driving down Route 234 toward Interstate 95. Taking into account the snow, the Fredericksburg local thought at worst it would take two hours to reach his home 30 miles away. Little did he know, he would soon join thousands of other motorists spending the night in their cars. Some 21 hours and one bottle of water later, he finally exited his vehicle, happy to be in his own driveway after living through what he described as “a nightmare.” 

“Sometimes it takes a challenge to change our perspective on life,” said Crissey. This particular challenge came in the form of a wintry mix of freezing rain followed by 15 inches of snow. The dangerous winter weather caused accidents that blocked both I-95 and Route 1 Jan. 3 and 4, according to the Virginia Department of Transportation, and affected motorists, service personnel, homeowners and the homeless. But hidden in the snow, there was grace. 

As the first lights started to flicker and then go out, people began stepping up to help their neighbors and total strangers in need. Kara Horne, a resident of College Heights and mother of four, said they lost power around 11:30 a.m. Jan. 3. A neighbor they barely knew shared his generator. 

“It was really beautiful to see our neighbor on the corner running power cords into the houses of two of his neighbors,” Kara said. She and her husband, Michael, a frequent contributor to the Catholic Herald, were surprised and touched when the same neighbor came over with a spare generator. They used it to fire up their waffle iron. 

Regardless of the snow and lack of full power, the Horne family was still able to make the daily pilgrimage up Augustine Avenue for 9 a.m. Mass at St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception Church in Fredericksburg. 

“It’s why we decided to live in this neighborhood, so we could get to church no matter what,” said Kara. 

When the snow was coming down in earnest Jan. 3, Kara witnessed the priests helping push parishioners’ cars that had become stuck in the snowy parking lot after Mass. 

“The snow was perfectly designed to get cars stuck,” said Father Sean Koehr, parochial vicar. “One parishioner called our emergency line when he got stuck again after leaving. Father (Scott) Sina hiked all the way to Route 3 to help him.” 

According to Father Koehr, as more people began to lose power, the church opened up the doors of the old convent so people could take a hot shower and charge their phones. 

When the snow finally stopped falling, the weight of it pulled down trees and branches. When a large tree fell across one of the entrances to the church property, the Knights of Columbus put out a call for help. Fourth-degree Knight Michael Davis responded with his wife, Pearl, their daughter, and a chainsaw. They worked together with Juan Chavez and his 13-year-old son Luke to chop up the tree and clear the parking lot, loading up as much debris as possible into their truck.

By Jan. 6, the roads were clear but many homes were still without power. Holy Cross Academy religion teacher Julie Olsen usually attends the 6 a.m. daily Mass, but with school canceled and no power at home, she decided to attend the 9 a.m. Mass. She stepped into the warm church, grateful for a break from her chilly home only to realize she wasn’t the only one escaping the cold.  

“I came into the church and found a homeless man who was soaking wet,” said Olsen. “I asked him if he was OK and he explained that his tent had collapsed in the snow.”

His name was Noris and he looked to be in his late 70s, Olsen said. She talked to Father Philip M. Cozzi, parochial vicar, before Mass to see if there were any spare clothes available at the church. When none could be found, she called her sons to bring extra clothes. 

“I brought him into church for Mass and when the clothes came, I helped him get dressed. It was my first time directly helping someone like that,” said Olsen. “I remember when we were sitting in the church and seeing the Nativity scene that it all seemed so Dorothy Day-ish to me. She once said, `If Jesus can be born in a stable, maybe he can also be born in me.’ ”

With the help of Horne and other parishioners, Olsen reached the Thurman Brisben Center, the area’s largest full-service homeless center.

Olsen helped Noris with the required assessment and drove him to the center by way of the McDonald's drive-thru for some breakfast. She was later notified that he was in good hands and had been transferred to Mica Ecumenical Ministries shelter. 

“It was a real blessing and grace to know that the Lord is at work in this,” said Olsen, who was so glad Noris found his way into the church that day.

“That is why churches are here,” said Olsen. “A place for the people of God to come.”

By Wednesday evening, many of the area’s homes had power including Olsen and the Hornes. Despite the rough start to 2022, the winter weather may continue to bring the grace to love thy neighbor as yourself.

Kassock is a freelance writer in Fredericksburg.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2022