Tornado survivors in Joplin begin recovery, scene described as war zone
By Mason T. Beecroft
Catholic News Service
(CNS photos/Dave Crenshaw, Eastern Oklahoma Catholic)
JOPLIN, Mo. (CNS) -- The devastating scene left by the massive F-5 tornado that hit Joplin the evening of May 22 can best be described as apocalyptic.
The tornado cut a swath of destruction three-fourths of a mile wide and six miles long, claiming at least 125 lives with hundreds still missing. Nearly every building in its path was left in total ruin.
The powerful winds uprooted trees and tossed cars. They toppled bricks, bent steel, snapped power lines, sheared limbs and stripped bark off trees.
In a May 25 news conference for area faith leaders, Missouri Gov. Jeremiah Nixon, upon witnessing the catastrophic destruction at St. John's Regional Medical Center, described it as a war zone.
St. Mary's Catholic Church was in the storm's direct path. The sanctuary, elementary school, rectory, parish hall and the St. Vincent de Paul building -- the original church from 1938 -- were all leveled by the storm.
"Most people's emotions are still too raw for them to begin processing this catastrophic event," said Father Justin Monaghan, St. Mary's pastor. "I just want to tell them, 'Our prayers are with you and we will rejoin you in rebuilding, healing, and renewal in the midst of the pain you are all suffering.'"
Father Monaghan found shelter in the bathtub of the rectory only seconds before the tornado brought the entire building down around him. He was trapped for hours, but parishioners eventually found him safe and dug him out of the ruins.
Parishioners retrieved the Blessed Sacrament from the church's shattered tabernacle. Only the large steel cross at what was the church's entrance remains, towering over the wreckage.
The priest said he has been overwhelmed with the outpouring of support from his parishioners. "I hope that I am reaching out to others as much as they have been reaching out to me."
"My faith has been strengthened by the amazing response of people in our parish and in the community. And to see the cross still standing reminds us what our mission is all about," he told the Eastern Oklahoma Catholic, the publication of the Diocese of Tulsa, Okla.
Tulsa is about 100 miles southwest of Joplin, in the western Missouri Diocese of Springfield-Cape Girardeau. The city sits close to the state line bordering Kansas and Oklahoma.
As she brought lunch to fellow parishioners sifting through the rubble, Cassie Patrick was overcome by the extent of the destruction.
Surveying the wreckage in tears, she said, "It is really hard to see. I can't even wrap my head around it. I would have rather lost my house than this church. I know it is just a building, and we will rebuild, but all my kids have gone to school here and this church has kept my family together. I am just thankful that Father Monaghan is safe. I prayed for Father all night and was so worried."
For Patrick and other parishioners, however, the emotional toll of the physical destruction pales in comparison to the pain of the human suffering. Tragically, one woman in the parish lost her husband, 5-year-old daughter, and 2-year-old son in the storm. They were at Home Depot when the tornado razed the building. Steve Jones, St. Mary's principal, confirmed the deaths, but names will not be released until official notifications have been made.
Father J Friedel, pastor of St. Peter the Apostle Parish in Joplin, and Gene Koester, principal of McAuley Catholic High School, were busy offering pastoral care, support and leadership since the storm struck.
St. Peter and McAuley are only a couple miles from St. Mary's, but were left untouched by the tornado. Since the storm, the high school has been serving as a triage center, hospital, storm shelter and sleep facility. Residents and staff of a destroyed nursing home were now making the gym their temporary home.
Koester had not slept since the evening of May 22, when the tornado struck, going home just long enough to shower and shave. He said that nearly every one of the school's 100 students had been volunteering around the clock, with the only exceptions being those that have lost their homes or family members.
"The kids have just been amazing. Students and their parents have given of themselves and their mindset is entirely on helping. It is remarkable, but not surprising. It is also part of the legacy of the Sisters of Mercy who founded our school," he said.
Father Friedel said providing care at this point is difficult as everything keeps shifting, depending on the immediate needs of the people who have been displaced or injured, and the subsequent storms that continue to come through the area. Still, Father Friedel was heartened by the selfless and dedicated service offered by the Catholic faithful in Joplin.
"It is absolutely remarkable to watch our high school and college kids working with our professionals to help the homeless, the elderly and anyone in need. There has been an abundance of compassion, concern, and charity from the people," he said. "Even those who have endured tragic personal suffering or the loss of their homes are volunteering to help others. They just want to care for people when they need it. At times like this, it is easy to see the face of Jesus in both his suffering and compassion."
Father Friedel told the congregation at Mass: "Sometimes only tears, laughter and love can get us through our disasters. ... We are going to be OK. For us, losing our lives is not the end. This does not make light of the pain and suffering, but reminds us that God in Christ is in the middle of our lives. This disaster cannot win. Easter reminds us that Jesus will make all things right in the end."
Karen Drake, the first-grade teacher at St. Mary's Catholic Elementary School, standing next to all the parish's toppled buildings, said: "Our cross is still standing. I think that says a lot."