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Emotions run high in Kentucky diocese as tornado recovery gets underway

First slide

OWENSBORO, Ky. — Early in the morning Dec. 11, following a tornado warning for Daviess County the night before, Owensboro Bishop William F. Medley found that his cellphone service was down — and that Gov. Andy Beshear had made an announcement about lives lost in a sudden tragedy.

The bishop became horrified and heartbroken as he realized the Kentucky governor was addressing a tragedy close to home: intense storms and tornadoes that had ripped across the southern part of the Diocese of Owensboro the night of Dec. 10.

But that morning, with massive cellphone and internet outages across Daviess County — where Owensboro, the seat of the diocese, is located — Bishop Medley could not initially communicate with anyone by phone.

"I was doing a lot of texting," Bishop Medley told The Western Kentucky Catholic, the diocesan newspaper, in an interview Dec. 13.

News began to trickle in about the destruction, which would later be confirmed as the worst tornado event in state history and in U.S. history. Multiple parishes across the diocese had been impacted in one way or another. The effects also were also being felt in Arkansas, Tennessee, Missouri and Illinois.

The bishop heard about the impact on St. Joseph Church in Mayfield — which, though seriously damaged, was spared some of the force when the former school building next door was destroyed instead.

Then he heard about destruction of Resurrection Church in Dawson Springs: the roof was gone, windows shattered and the building already estimated to be a total loss. The parish's Deacon, Mike Marsili, had later gone in to rescue the Blessed Sacrament from the miraculously spared tabernacle amid the rubble of his church.

"Saturday was very emotional," said the bishop. For a while he tried unsuccessfully to call Father Eric Riley, pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Mayfield, and Father David Kennedy, pastor of the three parishes of Immaculate Conception in Earlington, Holy Cross in Providence and the damaged Resurrection in Dawson Springs.

He was finally able to get in touch with both pastors via phone later that day, as emotionally difficult as it was for them to speak to each other.

On the afternoon of Dec. 12, Bishop Medley traveled to St. Jerome Parish in Fancy Farm, where the church there had opened its doors for a special 2 p.m. Mass celebrated by Father Riley for his displaced flock. An estimated 175 to 200 people attended.

Since St. Joseph in Mayfield is a predominantly Hispanic/Latino parish, the Mass was bittersweet since not only was it Gaudete Sunday (the third Sunday of Advent), but this year the day coincided with the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. A large statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe graced the sanctuary, and Father Riley's vestments depicted Our Lady's apparition to St. Juan Diego.

There, Bishop Medley shared a message of condolence from Cardinal Pietro Parolin, apostolic nuncio to the United States, on behalf of Pope Francis. They also learned that the pope had prayed that morning at his Angelus for "the victims of the tornadoes that hit Kentucky and other areas of the United States."

Susan Montalvo-Gesser, director of Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Owensboro, attended that Mass at St. Jerome with Deacon Chris Gutiérrez, director of the diocese's Office of Hispanic/Latino Ministry.

Montalvo-Gesser encountered a woman and her children who were present at the Mass and who had lost their home. The woman fell into Montalvo-Gesser's arms, weeping.

Montalvo-Gesser had brought her small statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and handed it to one of the woman's daughters.

"You will put this in your new house, which we will help you with," she said.

Besides supporting the community as a whole, Montalvo-Gesser was particularly concerned for four of her Catholic Charities clients from that area — whom she had not yet heard were all right. She found three of them at the Mass, and the fourth she encountered later, helping to assist those who had been affected by the storms.

"There is a beauty of people who have lost everything, going out to see those whom they can help," she said.

The diocese has set up a specific fund for Catholic Charities Tornado Relief, accessible at https://owensborodiocese.org/give.

Montalvo-Gesser said monetary donations were preferred, so that Catholic Charities can allot the money to obtain what is needed, on the ground, in each uniquely affected area.

Beshear confirmed that day that at least four tornadoes had touched down in Kentucky, with one on the ground for more than 200 miles in Kentucky alone, and that lives were lost in eight counties. It is currently believed that 1,000 homes were damaged or destroyed and 18 counties sustained significant damage.

As of Dec. 14, the confirmed death toll in Kentucky was 74.

But the response has been powerful. In the morning of Dec. 13, the switchboard phone was ringing nonstop at the McRaith Catholic Center with calls from people across the United States wanting to send assistance. McRaith is the Owensboro Diocese's pastoral center office.

The diocese even received a message from Archbishop Fabio Martínez Castilla of Tuxtla Gutiérrez in Chiapas, Mexico, which is the hometown of Father Carmelo Jimenez, pastor of St. Michael Parish in Sebree, Kentucky.

At the end of the Mass in Fancy Farm, Bishop Medley told the congregation that in a few days many had planned to have a Nativity set decorating their homes in celebration of Christmas.

"But the wood of the manger gives way to the wood of the cross. And the cross is in our churches year-round," said the bishop. "We can make our sufferings one in communion with Christ on the cross."

He pointed out that the Catholic church that had suffered the most damage in the diocese was named after the Resurrection.

"The theme of the Resurrection will be core to our thoughts during this very difficult process," he said.

Montalvo-Gesser agreed: "God is not in the disaster. But God is in the response."

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021