By Elizabeth Wong Barnstead
DAWSON SPRINGS, Ky. — They have called it “Catholic Hill” for years, but never dreamed the hill would become the home of an actual Catholic church.
In fact, if someone had suggested years ago that Rhonda Mills and her husband, Donnie Mills, would be hosting weekly Masses in the metal shed outside their house, “I’d say you’re crazy,” she said in a recent phone conversation with The Western Kentucky Catholic, newspaper of the Diocese of Owensboro.
And yet the Mills family is now in their third month of welcoming fellow members of Resurrection Church in Dawson Springs following a severe tornado outbreak in December 2021 that devastated Kentucky and surrounding states and left Resurrection’s church building destroyed.
This has certainly changed their daily lives, but “to keep our parish together, it’s well worth it,” said Rhonda Mills.
Rhonda Mills said the people of Dawson Springs “were all in shock” the morning after tornadoes raged across the region throughout the night of Dec. 10.
Like Mayfield, Bremen, Bowling Green and other cities across western Kentucky, Dawson Springs was in widespread crisis in the immediate aftermath.
Ashley Marsili, whose husband, Deacon Mike Marsili, serves Resurrection Parish — as well as nearby Immaculate Conception Church in Earlington and Holy Cross Church in Providence — said the small town was “just bare” from the flattening of homes and businesses.
Initial reports indicated that 13 people had been killed in Dawson Springs alone. Later news reports stated that 28 people had died in Dawson Springs and neighboring Bremen.
When parishioners were finally able to travel out and check on Resurrection’s parish grounds early in the morning of Dec. 11, they realized their church home was another casualty.
The Blessed Sacrament in the tabernacle had been miraculously spared, but church’s roof, windows and several walls were torn apart — exposing Resurrection’s interior to the storms and scattering glass and debris everywhere.
Parishioners figured early on that Resurrection would be declared a total loss, and evaluations in the following months would ultimately determine the church would need to be demolished and rebuilt.
As a longtime member of Resurrection Church, Donnie Mills recognized that without a place to worship as a community, “many would never return” whenever the church was finally rebuilt.
He called his wife when she was watching their grandchildren several days after the storms.
“What do you think about having Mass in our weight room?” he asked.
“It’s fine with me,” said Rhonda Mills.
“Are you sure?” said her husband.
“Yes,” she replied.
Resurrection’s pastor, Father David Kennedy, now refers to the shed on the Mills’ property as “the little chapel,” though it started life as a metal-walled, freestanding exercise room.
The Mills are one of five Catholic families living on and around a hill in the Dawson Springs neighborhood — hence the nickname “Catholic Hill” — and have always been known for welcoming friends and family into their home. Moving to Dawson Springs in 1985, they settled in their current house in 1986 and built the 20-by-25-foot weight room in 1990.
The Marsilis, who are one of the Catholic Hill families, raised their children alongside Donnie and Rhonda Mills’ children and remain close friends to this day.
Deacon Marsili said the Mills shed was the hub for gatherings over the years, hosting poker games, barbecues, post-volleyball dinners and weightlifting sessions “back in the day” when he and Donnie Mills were fitness enthusiasts.
“We’ve loved it here,” said Rhonda Mills. “A great place to raise our kids here. It’s home.”
It seemed almost natural progression that the Mills couple would therefore host their displaced parish family — especially since Donnie Mills is not the first person in his family to open his doors to a church community.
Years ago, his parents hosted Mass in their basement until St. William of Vercelli Parish’s church could be built in Marion, Ky.
With the blessing and support of Owensboro Bishop William F. Medley, Resurrection Parish reconvened for Mass in the repurposed weight room on Dec. 19, 2021 — the first time since the storms. A few days later, Bishop Medley joined the community inside the “little chapel” to celebrate Christmas Eve Mass.
These days, Father Kennedy celebrates Mass for a regular crowd of approximately 40 to 60 people who squeeze into the building on Sunday mornings and Thursday evenings — keeping up with Resurrection’s pre-tornado Mass schedule.
The parish even celebrated Mass together on Ash Wednesday March 2 — though without music that day since their regular music leaders, Sterling and Karen Wallace, were deep in rebuilding their own house lost to the tornadoes.
“I told Father that I think our Lent came early this year,” said Karen Wallace, whom Father Kennedy assured the parish understood.
Since their house is just a few steps away from the shed, the Mills’ living room now has a table near the side door where people can pick up bulletins. The weekly offering is counted at their kitchen table, and a converted spare bedroom/office is used for Father Kennedy and Deacon Marsili to vest before Mass.
Donnie and Rhonda Mills installed an audio system in their house to welcome parishioners who feel claustrophobic in the tight space, or whose issues with mobility prevent them from sitting comfortably inside the shed church. This provides them the opportunity to listen and worship virtually.
Deacon Marsili always makes sure to walk over to the house to bring them Communion as well.
When the time comes for Mass, parishioners park all over the grassy area of the Mills’ property and children of the Catholic Hill families run across the yard to see if they are needed as altar servers that day.
Rhonda Mills said they just installed an air conditioning unit in the building, looking ahead to hot summer days.
“It’s a change, but it’s well worth it,” she said, commenting the Triduum “will be interesting” since they tend to draw a good crowd for Easter. “We have four kids and 11 grandkids. Our house is rarely empty so this is like an extension of our family.”
Ashley Marsili said parish leadership has been touring other churches around the diocese to plan the design of their new church. Recently, she and Rhonda Mills visited St. Leo Church in Murray, Ky., to see if that could provide some inspiration.
“We are trying to determine how we will rebuild,” said Ashley Marsili. “We’ve been looking at different church plans. If we’re going to make any changes, now’s the time to do it and make it better than it has been.”
Father Kennedy said he is touched by “the generosity of people” from around the diocese and the United States, who have sent donations for their rebuilding fund after hearing about the loss of the church.
At the same time, Resurrection’s parishioners have been involved in “helping people move into homes,” he said. “It’s a solid community.”
“We’re continuing on,” said Father Kennedy, adding that Resurrection has people entering the church through the Order of Christian Initiation of Adults “during all this.”
“I’m really thankful for the people who have been so kind,” he said. “People we know, and don’t know. It’s just amazing.”
Ashley Marsili agreed: “It makes you humble. They don’t even know us. It makes me cry.”
Deacon Marsili credited outsiders who showed up in Dawson Springs to help immediately after the storms.
“People didn’t wait; they just came and helped,” he said.
Rhonda and Donnie Mills’ life has only gotten busier since December as they continue volunteering with tornado recovery, besides hosting liturgies twice a week at their house. Rhonda Mills was just approved to be a case manager with Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Owensboro to help resettle local clients.
They are exhausted, but “I have no complaints,” said Rhonda Mills. “It’s what we are called to do right now.”