WEST, Texas — For some 24 years, Father Ed Karasek has ministered in the small, primarily Catholic town of West, Texas. An explosion April 17 at the local fertilizer plant decimated whole blocks of his town and took the lives of some of his parishioners.
As a priest, he says, "You feel like a father who has lost children. You love these people like a father loves his children. You’re a spiritual father. … And you hurt."
Father Karasek is among those spearheading the Church’s response to the tragedy.
The parking lot of the Church of the Assumption — about 10 blocks from the explosion site — became a makeshift food pantry, where workers, volunteers and families could get a meal any time of day.
The parish also became a space for emergency response teams to coordinate their efforts.
Meanwhile, Father Karasek said, the staff has been hit personally by the tragedy. The son of the parish secretary — a volunteer fireman who was one of the first respondents — is among the dead.
Father Karasek is "bouncing back and forth" between the parking lot and the chapel, said parishioner Veronica Selderhoss — who volunteers at the parish in various roles and is now helping to cover the secretarial duties — just days after the explosion.
"He’s in church to help anybody who wants to be prayed with; he’s out in the parking lot, comforting, helping distribute (food and supplies)," Selderhoss said. "He doesn’t turn anyone away, even though he’s exhausted," she added. "He’s very strong for us."
The explosion at West Fertilizer Co. apparently resulted from a fire at the plant that started some minutes earlier. Fourteen people were killed, and more than 200 were wounded in the blast.
The priest affirmed that increased time for prayer is helping him stay strong. "[I’m] just keeping close to the Lord in prayer. ... A lot of other priests and other ministers have called from around the country, even outside the country, just to offer their prayers and their support," he said.
In fact, hours after the explosion, Pope Francis tweeted a call for prayer ("Please join me in praying for the victims of the explosion in Texas and their families"), and, through his secretary of state, the Holy Father sent a message to Bishop Joe Vásquez of the Diocese of Austin.
The Pope conveyed his "heartfelt condolences" and the assurance that he prays "for the eternal rest of the victims and implores God’s blessings of consolation and peace upon those who mourn and all who generously aid in the continuing work of relief."
Bishop Vásquez led an interfaith service the week of the disaster — a follow-up to a service held with Father Karasek and the other Christian ministers who work in West.
On his way to the town, the bishop stopped at the Catholic hospital in nearby Waco, where many of the wounded were taken. The town of West does not have a hospital.
Bishop Vásquez’s spokesman, Christian González, said the bishop’s main message has been a call to prayer, as well as echoing "that message of consolation and peace that Pope Francis sent to the diocese, which was very, very touching."
González also praised Father Karasek’s "deep spirituality and deep faith," saying the priest is "standing strong and keeping the community together."
The community of West is predominantly Czech, with most people tracing their ancestry to Moravian or German migrants in the 1870s. The community’s population of 2,900 is mostly Catholic; the parish has 1,275 registered families. The parish is also home to a school, pre-K through eighth grade, with 136 students and 17 faculty members.
González noted that, as the explosion happened on a Wednesday, many people were at the church or just leaving from their religious-education program. The church sustained minimal damage from the explosion, which cracked some of the stained-glass windows.
Speaking from the parish, Selderhoss shared that the community itself is a support system in such a tragedy. She noted that the families who lost their homes — as many as 50 houses were destroyed or damaged, as well as an apartment building, a retirement home and a school — found shelter with other family members or friends.
Father Karasek mentioned the community’s spirit of perseverance at the vigil the night after the explosion. He said their perseverance can be attributed to their faith.
"I think [their faith] is giving them the strength to know that we celebrate the Resurrection, new life in the Lord," he said. "It’s the Year of Faith, and their faith has been tested, but, somehow, they have to persevere. They’ve gone through tough times. They come from a strong faith," pointing out the way the immigrant roots of the community have formed the people’s character.
Elizabeth Disco-Shearer, associate national executive director for the south-central region of the St. Vincent de Paul Society, as well as president of Texas Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster, helped coordinate the relief effort in West.
"All the Catholic organizations are working together to have a coordinated response in West," she explained.
That response included furniture collections and monetary donations so that direct assistance could be given to families. St. Vincent de Paul team members recently gained experience working with families on the East Coast who lost homes due to Hurricane Sandy.
The regional group has been coordinating case management, with one-on-one work with families for a long-term response. "And the long term is the most difficult phase of any disaster," Disco-Shearer said.
Among the services offered to families in West is the "house in a box" initiative, born from the crisis of Hurricane Katrina and used in the wake of the Texas wildfires in 2011. The charity purchases furniture en masse from vendors such as Ikea so that when families go into "a temporary housing situation, like into an apartment, they have everything they need to have a starter home set up," Disco-Shearer said.
But even with experience gleaned from other disasters and good coordination, she added, "It’s huge. We need prayers."
writes from Houston.