A man helps to clear debris from the ruins of St Joseph’s Catholic Church in Ridgway, Illinois. The church was destroyed by the recent wave of tornadoes in the US. CNS photo

HENRYVILLE, INDIANA, USA – As one of the few buildings in town to come through intense storms nearly intact, St Francis Xavier Church in Indiana has become a natural staging area for relief efforts, community organising and prayer.

Four days after a devastating tornado hit, volunteers and professionals used St Xavier, the nearby Henryville Community Church and a community centre as bases for people trying to put their lives back together.

The town of about 1,600 was one of several in the region to be severely damaged by storms that created dozens of tornadoes across 11 states on March 2 and 3.

At least 39 people were killed.

Deaths also were reported in Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama and Ohio. Substantial damage dotted those states as well as Georgia, North Carolina, Illinois, Mississippi, Virginia and South Carolina.

Ms Tracy Guernsey, the staff nurse at Henryville’s public school complex, was among about 40 people still in the building when the tornado hit. She told Catholic News Service in a phone interview that if classes had not been dismissed early in the face of the advancing storm, the death toll in Henryville would have been dramatic.

She said she and about 15 other people emerged from her office to find the whole second floor of the school ripped off.

Also reeling were parishioners of St Luke Catholic Church in Salyersville, Kentucky.

There, parishioner Helen Pennington was working in the church basement as the twister approached. Two carfuls of people passing through the area asked to seek shelter and joined her in safety while the structure above was flattened.

Six buildings – the church, the rectory, an outreach ministry, a storage building, grotto and picnic shelter – previously stood on the parish grounds. After the storm, only the locked door of office manager Benedictine Sr Jan Barthel’s office and its adjoining wall were left standing.

Fr Bob Damron, parish priest of St Luke in Salyersville and St Martha Church in Prestonsburg, reminded his parishioners as they gathered for Mass on the weekend that the church is a community of people, not a building.

He said St Luke’s parishioners will meet for Mass in one another’s homes until a new church is built.

Catholics from neighbouring parishes also tried to salvage what they could.

At Sunday Mass at St Francis Xavier on March 4, Fr Steven Schaftlein, said the church was “spared to be a symbol of hope”.

News video of the Mass showed the back pews of the small church filled with cases of food and other supplies. By the next day, the entire building was filled with donated materials.

Elsewhere, in the Diocese of Lexington, Kentucky, Prince of Peace Church lost the roofs of both the rectory and the church building,

Just a few days earlier, another wave of tornadoes left 13 people dead in Illinois, Missouri and Tennessee.

Relief efforts included a special collection taken up in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis during weekend Masses and coordination of emergency assistance through the region’s Society of St Vincent de Paul and Catholic Charities agencies. CNS

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