Catholics turn to prayer, action in wake of deadly tornadoes’ death and destruction across US

Father Patrick Friend, chaplain and spiritual guidance counselor of Little Rock Catholic High School for Boys in Arkansas, helped to salvage belongings from a friend’s home in the aftermath of a tornado April 1, 2023. Powerful storms swept through a large swath of the nation the evening of March 31 into April 1, unleashing deadly tornadoes and carving a path of destruction that killed at least 24 people in the South, Midwest and Mid-Atlantic. (OSV News Photo by Cheney Orr, Reuters)

By Gina Christian

Catholics turned to prayer and then action in the wake of tornadoes that carved a deadly path of destruction through the United States March 31-April 2, killing at least 33, injuring dozens and devastating thousands of homes and businesses.

As of April 3, the National Weather Service counted 100 tornadoes in 11 states: Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Maryland, Michigan, Mississippi, Tennessee and Wisconsin.

Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders declared a state of emergency after multiple devastating tornadoes struck the state, with an EF-3 Tornado striking Little Rock, the state capital. Sanders promised to “spare no resource to assist with response and recovery efforts.”

Kristy Dunn, principal of St. Teresa Catholic School in Little Rock, said the tornadoes were all too familiar.

“I actually experienced a tornado destroying my house when I was 14,” she said. “So it’s a part of my experience. It’s a little emotional to speak about.”

Dunn said one student’s home was flattened by the tornado, with “a very generous school family” taking in the child and her family, as Dunn and the school community gathered clothing and other necessities.

The St. Teresa students had been in church when a storm watch — quickly upgraded to a warning — was issued in the 2 p.m. hour, said Dunn.

Dunn, who said school faculty did “a tremendous job” in reassuring the children, checked on the classes throughout the warning, saying she “wanted to be with every single class, in every single safe space.”

She was especially concerned about the third-grade classes, who had been hard hit by news of the March 27 mass shooting at The Covenant School in Nashville, Tennessee, which claimed the lives of six, including three 9-year-old students.

“They had a lot of emotions yesterday already, and then we’re telling them to shelter in place for (tornadoes),” Dunn said.

Students turned to prayer, with one kindergartener excitedly telling Dunn he and his classmates had “prayed two times.”

St. Teresa pastor Father Stephen Gadberry said that students at other area Catholic schools had done the same, sharing videos from Christ the King Catholic School in Little Rock, where children sang Christian composer Michael W. Smith’s song “Our God Is An Awesome God,” and from Sacred Heart Catholic School in Morrilton, whose students sang the Divine Mercy chaplet to guitar accompaniment.

Father Gadberry said while his parish did not sustain any direct damage, he was “still assessing” the storm’s impact on parishioners, who also are organizing to assist clean-up efforts. The parish is distributing food, baby items and clothing to victims.

The priest’s mother and two brothers some 100 miles northeast in Wynne, Arkansas — where a tornado killed four, destroying schools, homes, businesses and churches — were unhurt, although the town was “obliterated,” he said.

“Thank the Lord, (our) house is out in the country on a family farm, so it didn’t have any damage,” he said. “But they all saw it go south of the house.”

St. Peter’s Catholic Church in Wynne was spared, said Father Gadberry, who spoke with pastor Father Alfhones Perikala.

“There’s no major damage to the church, which is truly a miracle, since right across the road from them, other buildings were obliterated,” said Father Gadberry. “But a number of parishioners have completely lost their homes.”

Little Rock Bishop Anthony B. Taylor has been calling clergy, said Father Gadberry.

“He knows all of us by name, and he was checking on me this morning, especially with my family in Wynne,” Father Gadberry said. “The communication among the clergy has been phenomenal.”

Father Brian Geary, pastor of St. James Catholic Church in Belvidere, Illinois, said he blessed the body of tornado victim Frederick Livingston Jr., who was killed when the roof collapsed during a concert at the Apollo Theater March 31.

The theater is owned by a St. James parishioner, said Father Geary, adding that he also ministered to first responders, many of whom are parishioners as well.

At Our Lady of the Greenwood Parish in Greenwood, Indiana, a parish staff member said a tornado in nearby Whiteland had destroyed several parishioners’ homes. The parish is “coming up with a plan” that will combine fundraisers and donated labor to assist the families, she said.

As the storm system moved east, tornadoes touched down April 2 in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, as well as Delaware, where one person was killed following a house collapse in Sussex County.

Sean McLaughlin, safe environment coordinator for the Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy of Philadelphia, took refuge with his wife and two children in the basement of their Riverton, New Jersey, home, within a mile of one tornado.

“The wind was unlike anything I have ever heard,” McLaughlin said, adding that his home was not damaged, but a large number of trees were downed throughout the area.

Amid the loss of life and property, the storms have helped to reveal God’s mysterious plans, said Father Gadberry.

“Any time a natural disaster hits … it brings us to our knees, and not in a cute theological sense,” Father Gadberry said. “It levels the playing field and shows we’re not the big and strong individuals we think we are. We really do need community. Literally, overnight, enemies are working together in the same yard, getting past their differences. … We’re a pilgrim people, and we have to journey on together.”

Dunn agreed, saying that her school community members have been “texting wildly” asking how they can help.

“The Lord is so good … and there is so much good in humanity,” she said. “Praise God I’m able to see it up close and personal now.”

In the wake of the disaster, clergy are called to “offer the embrace of the Father,” said Father Patrick Friend, chaplain and spiritual guidance counselor at Catholic High School for Boys in Little Rock, who visited the ruined home of two students April 1.

“There’s nothing you can say, but when a priest shows up in a moment of crisis, it creates a space where people can be vulnerable and grieve,” he said. “You don’t have to have the right words. You’re bringing the physical presence of the Lord. And that’s something I’ll be thinking about on Holy Thursday.”

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