BOWLING GREEN, Ky. — Santa Claus brings toys and cheer. Jesus brings love and salvation. The Sisters of Charity of Nazareth bring chainsaws and wheelbarrows.
Through the late hours of Friday, Dec. 10, and into early Saturday morning, tornadoes ripped through Western Kentucky leaving destruction in wide swaths across the region.
As the first rays of the sun shed light on the mass devastation, Sister of Charity of Nazareth Luke Boiarski, director of the SCN Disaster Relief team, began receiving calls from volunteers.
“We put the word out and had fantastic response,” Sister Boiarski said.
About 15 volunteers mobilized to provide relief in the form of debris removal and monetary donations. On Tuesday and Wednesday, the team aided clean-up efforts in Campbellsville, some 50 miles south of the Motherhouse in Nazareth. On Thursday, the team traveled to Bowling Green, 75 miles southwest of Campbellsville.
The team checked in to the City of Bowling Green’s volunteer headquarters last Thursday morning to receive an assignment. They would be helping resident Janet Jessie, a local bartender, by removing a fallen tree from her property.
When they arrived at Jessie’s residence, towing a trailer stocked with chainsaws, rakes, buckets, wheelbarrows and gloves, the homeowner didn’t know what to think.
“Last night at work I was showing my friend pictures of the house,” Jessie said while sitting on her front porch. “She said, ‘Give me your address.’ And now there are people here today.”
Sister Boiarski sat with Jessie while the volunteers worked quickly to chop up a fallen tree and stack the debris and wood near the road.
“I ain’t been able to do nothing but cry,” said Jessie, a widow. “The main thing is, we’re safe. Everything else is replaceable.”
Deacon Joe Dant, who serves at St. Augustine Church in Lebanon, Ky., and Holy Name of Mary Church in Calvary, Ky., donned blue jean overalls as he dragged logs across the yard after volunteer Ronnie Mattingly cut them off the giant tree. A neighbor’s dogs ran circles around the workers — nowhere for them to go after their kennels were blown away in the tornado.
Julia Gerwe, an Americorp volunteer who lives on campus with the sisters, joined the disaster relief efforts last week, too. She said for many of the volunteers, the Western Kentucky tornadoes weren’t the first disaster relief effort they’ve been part of. It’s “cool to see everyone come together and share their own experiences,” even though the occasion is a sad one, Gerwe said.
Gerwe’s title is ecological sustainability educational programs manager, and she sees a role for sustainability as rebuilding begins.
“These cleanup rebuilding efforts will be needed for months,” she said. “Obviously the sisters are doing a lot on the response end of things on the ground. But part of their mission is to care for the Earth. Making communities more resilient.”
The Sisters of Charity of Nazareth have been responding to natural disasters and crises for more than 200 years. They were nurses during the Spanish flu in 1918, during cholera outbreaks before that and for injured soldiers on both sides of the Civil War. Almost a decade ago they formalized the Disaster Relief team. With its stocked trailer and specially trained volunteers, the Disaster Relief team has mobilized to assist after dozens of disasters, including hurricanes, tornadoes and floods within a 500-mile radius of the Motherhouse.
Diane Curtis, SCN director of communications, said the effort began in 2011 when a scheduled mission trip to Montana was canceled due to massive flooding in Joplin, Missouri. The volunteer group redirected their efforts to Joplin where they helped clear debris and prayed with survivors.
“Sister Luke and the volunteers saw the disaster in Joplin and said, ‘This must be God leading us,’ ” Curtis said.
When they arrived home, Sister Boiarski decided to formalize the Disaster Relief ministry with a dedicated group of volunteers who have been vetted, trained and are willing to be available on little to no notice. About 250 volunteers now fit that bill.
“We have a good group of volunteers,” Curtis said. “They’re very devoted. Like Ronnie (Mattingly), he chooses to take time away from work. And because of the transformative experience this has been to him, he’s invited more people to volunteer.”
Before leaving Jessie’s house, Sister Boiarski gave her $300 in gift cards. Afterward, the volunteer headquarters asked the team to scout an area south of the city for properties or people needing assistance. The volunteers ended up at another residence with a tree down in the yard.
“It’s been heart-wrenching to see all these people lose everything,” Sister Boiarski said. “They lost everything, things like chainsaws, too. You can’t do anything for yourself even if you want to.”
The mission of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth is “to work for justice in solidarity with oppressed peoples, especially the economically poor and women, and to care for the Earth. We risk our lives and resources, both personally and corporately, as we engage in diverse ministries in carrying out this mission.”
In that context, Dana Hinton, SCN director of communications for the western province, said the sisters’ response to disasters shouldn’t surprise anyone.
“It’s quite a group that Sister Luke has; it’s amazing,” Hinton said. “It’s not surprising at all if you know the sisters that they would take this disaster relief and run with it.”