Father Stephen Beatty was fast asleep when the tornado hit Ridgeway, Ill., at five in the morning on Feb. 29. He awoke to a “loud tearing noise” that could have been the sound of his rectory dormer being ripped off. Or it could have been the roof on St. Joseph Church next door and the towering, 118-year-old, Gothic-revival church collapsing inward.
The storm was part of the recent devastation to hit the Midwest and South, killing dozens and leaving towns leveled.
“The glass from one of the windows in my bedroom blew in,” he said. “I threw a few things into a bag because I thought I might not be coming back.”
Getting out wasn’t easy: Part of the wall and a window had crashed into the landing on the staircase he needed to reach the main floor.
“That was tricky,” admitted Father Beatty.
“I left a note on the door of the rectory explaining that I’d got out safely,” he recalled. Then he went out to see if he could help others, not even noticing that the church was in ruins. “I figured there must be serious damage in the town, judging by the condition the rectory was in,” he said.
As it turned out, the church that physically dominated the town of 800 took the most damage. But the destruction wasn’t complete. The marble altar, brought in from Italy a few years after the church itself was erected, survived virtually intact. Father Beatty said the parishioners are already talking about rebuilding “a church worthy of our fine altar,” though some are anxious because of diocesan plans to consolidate under-populated parishes.
“They are terrified St. Joseph’s won’t be rebuilt at all,” said the priest, who came to Ridgeway only a year and a half ago. “My jaw dropped when I saw this church the first time. It’s amazing for a town of this size.”
Jackie Drone, the church’s parish secretary, says the initial impact of the loss of their church was “devastating” for most parishioners. Though a relative newcomer to the parish, Drone met her husband there “at a retreat that was cancelled. My husband’s great-great grandfather helped build it.” One of the stained-glass windows — now partially destroyed — bore the Drone name.
Both she and her husband slept through the storm, and her father-in-law called with the news that “the church was gone. But we didn’t believe it was really gone until we saw it.”
The parish has rallied to recover whatever is safely salvageable and move Father Beatty and the office to another parish in nearby Shawneetown.
The diocesan insurance agent estimated the damage to the church at $2 million, with much more costly damage inflicted on the gymnasium and rectory. Offers of help have poured in from parishes in the region and across the country.
A few homes in the region were lightly damaged, but there were no serious injuries, said Drone. “Some people are speculating that the church shielded nearby homes.”
Father Beatty has reached a similar conclusion: “I certainly think my place was protected.”