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Winds wreak havoc on Falls Church convent, diocesan churches

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After powerful gusts of wind swept through the region March 2 - 3, some parishes in the Diocese of Arlington were left with damaged property, others celebrated Mass by candlelight or canceled it altogether, and still others took the opportunity to help people left without power. 

As of March 6, 11 parishes had reported damage to roofs, fences and other property from winds ranging from 50 to 70 miles per hour, according to Mary Stewart, director of the diocesan Office of Risk Management. 

“It was a pretty scary event to be awakened at 3:30 in the morning by the sound of the house rattling and broken glass." Sister Kathryn Mullarkey

Bishop Michael F. Burbidge gave parishioners a dispensation from the Sunday Mass obligation under certain conditions. The dispensation applied to those who could not leave their homes, or those who could not attend Mass because their church was closed and they were unable to attend Mass at another church. 

Father Thomas P. Ferguson, vicar general, sent an email to priests March 3, asking them to use their best judgment regarding decisions to cancel Masses, confessions and other parish activities. He urged parishes to not allow people inside buildings where their safety would be at risk. 

At St. Philip Church in Falls Church, Mass and all activities were canceled due to a downed power line and a tree blocking the driveway. 

“This is the first time in my life we’ve never had a Mass at one of my parishes,” said Father Denis M. Donahue, pastor. It was clear that it was unsafe to let people in, he said, so parishioners quickly mobilized. 

“We had volunteers, all from the Hispanic community, (who) manned the driveway letting people know that Mass was canceled and directing them to other parishes,” Father Donahue said. People who rely on the parish food pantry for assistance had to be sent home as well. 

A Men’s Day of Labor is scheduled for March 17, in addition to other clean-up projects with dates to be determined. Father Donahue is asking parishioners to contribute to the food pantry or donate to the poor box because many poor and elderly parishioners may have difficulty replacing spoiled food. 

In addition, the Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharist convent next door to the church was damaged severely after a large oak tree crashed into the side of it.  

“It was a pretty scary event to be awakened at 3:30 in the morning by the sound of the house rattling and broken glass,” said Sister Kathryn Mullarkey. When the sisters went to see what happened, they were not able to open the door because the tree had fallen on the overhang. 

Sister Mullarkey and Father Donahue are concerned about the possibility of structural damage. 

“It could be more than just a hole in the wall or broken windows because this thing broke on the wall of the convent,” he said. 

The cost of repairs to the church is unknown, but St. Philip has already lost an estimated $12,000 by not having a Sunday collection.  

Other parishes that were not affected reached out to people left without power in cold temperatures.

At St. John the Evangelist Church in Warrenton, Father James R. Gould, the pastor, invited people who lost their power to come sleep in the church, which had heat, power and running water. “Many in the community have been out of power for four days now and still are out today,” Laura Matthys, a parishioner, wrote in a March 5 email.

At other parishes, the storm only caused a temporary loss of power. St. John Neumann Church in Reston celebrated the March 3 Vigil Mass by the light of the altar candles and a few battery-powered lanterns. 

“It was making do with what we had,” said Patty Kwapniewski, administrative assistant.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2018