Cross Symbolizes Faith Amid Tragedy in Joplin

Local priest: 'At times like this, it is easy to see the face of Jesus.' Updated numbers and look at how the Catholic community is helping.

A wooden altar, a cross, some metal beams and pieces of a few cinder-block walls of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Joplin, Mo., are all that are left standing May 25. The church, rectory, school and parish hall were destroyed by a massive F-5 tornado May 22. As of early May 26, the number of those killed by the tornado totaled 125.
A wooden altar, a cross, some metal beams and pieces of a few cinder-block walls of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Joplin, Mo., are all that are left standing May 25. The church, rectory, school and parish hall were destroyed by a massive F-5 tornado May 22. As of early May 26, the number of those killed by the tornado totaled 125. (photo: CNS photo/Dave Crenshaw, Eastern Oklahoma Catholic)

Updated information at the beginning and end.

JOPLIN, Mo. (CNS) — The devastating scene left by the massive F-5 tornado that hit Joplin the evening of May 22 can best be described as apocalyptic.

The tornado cut a swath of destruction three-fourths of a mile wide and six miles long, claiming at least 132 lives, as of May 27, with hundreds still missing. Nearly every building in its path was left in total ruin.

The powerful winds uprooted trees and tossed cars. They toppled bricks, bent steel, snapped power lines, sheared limbs and stripped bark off trees.

In a May 25 news conference for area faith leaders, Missouri Gov. Jeremiah Johnson, upon witnessing the catastrophic destruction at St. John’s Regional Medical Center, described it as a war zone.

St. Mary’s Catholic Church was in the storm’s direct path. The sanctuary, elementary school, rectory, parish hall and the St. Vincent de Paul building, the original church from 1938, were all leveled by the storm.

“Most people’s emotions are still too raw for them to begin processing this catastrophic event,” said Father Justin Monaghan, St. Mary’s pastor. “I just want to tell them, ‘Our prayers are with you, and we will rejoin you in rebuilding, healing and renewal, in the midst of the pain you are all suffering.’”

Father Monaghan found shelter in the bathtub of the rectory only seconds before the tornado brought the entire building down around him. He was trapped for hours, but parishioners eventually found him safe and dug him out of the ruins.

Parishioners retrieved the Blessed Sacrament from the church’s shattered tabernacle. Only the large steel cross at what was the church’s entrance remains, towering over the wreckage.

The priest said he has been overwhelmed with the outpouring of support from his parishioners: “I hope that I am reaching out to others as much as they have been reaching out to me.”

“My faith has been strengthened by the amazing response of people in our parish and in the community. And to see the cross still standing reminds us what our mission is all about,” he told the Eastern Oklahoma Catholic, the publication of the Diocese of Tulsa, Okla.

Tulsa is about 100 miles southwest of Joplin, in the western Missouri Diocese of Springfield-Cape Girardeau. The city sits close to the state line bordering Kansas and Oklahoma.

As she brought lunch to fellow parishioners sifting through the rubble, Cassie Patrick was overcome by the extent of the destruction.

Surveying the wreckage in tears, she said, “It is really hard to see. I can’t even wrap my head around it. I would have rather lost my house than this church. I know it is just a building, and we will rebuild, but all my kids have gone to school here, and this church has kept my family together. I am just thankful that Father Monaghan is safe. I prayed for Father all night and was so worried.”

For Patrick and other parishioners, however, the emotional toll of the physical destruction pales in comparison to the pain of the human suffering. Tragically, one woman in the parish lost her husband, 5-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son in the storm. They were at Home Depot when the tornado razed the building. Steve Jones, St. Mary’s principal, confirmed the deaths, but names will not be released until official notifications have been made.

Father J. Friedel, pastor of St. Peter the Apostle Parish in Joplin, and Gene Koester, principal of McAuley Catholic High School, were busy offering pastoral care, support and leadership since the storm struck.

St. Peter and McAuley are only a couple miles from St. Mary’s but were left untouched by the tornado. Since the storm, the high school has been serving as a triage center, hospital, storm shelter and sleep facility. Residents and staff of a destroyed nursing home were now making the gym their temporary home.

Koester had not slept since the evening of May 22, when the tornado struck, going home just long enough to shower and shave. He said that nearly every one of the school’s 100 students had been volunteering around the clock, with the only exceptions being those who have lost their homes or family members.

“The kids have just been amazing. Students and their parents have given of themselves, and their mindset is entirely on helping. It is remarkable, but not surprising. It is also part of the legacy of the Sisters of Mercy, who founded our school,” he said.

Father Friedel said providing care at this point is difficult, as everything keeps shifting, depending on the immediate needs of the people who have been displaced or injured and the subsequent storms that continue to come through the area. Still, Father Friedel was heartened by the selfless and dedicated service offered by the Catholic faithful in Joplin.

“It is absolutely remarkable to watch our high school and college kids working with our professionals to help the homeless, the elderly and anyone in need. There has been an abundance of compassion, concern and charity from the people,” he said. “Even those who have endured tragic personal suffering or the loss of their homes are volunteering to help others. They just want to care for people when they need it. At times like this, it is easy to see the face of Jesus in both his suffering and compassion.”

Father Friedel told the congregation at Mass: “Sometimes only tears, laughter and love can get us through our disasters. ... We are going to be okay. For us, losing our lives is not the end. This does not make light of the pain and suffering, but reminds us that God in Christ is in the middle of our lives. This disaster cannot win. Easter reminds us that Jesus will make all things right in the end.”

And as Karen Drake, the first-grade teacher at St. Mary’s Catholic Elementary School, standing next to all the parish’s toppled buildings, said: “Our cross is still standing. I think that says a lot.”

A Catholic couple is doing what they can to hand out financial assistance with the help of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul.

John and Mary Olson belong to St. Mary’s Parish.

Mary is president of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul at St. Mary’s and John, a past president, serves as treasurer.

Once the Olsons realized the extent of damage from the storm, they immediately contacted the society’s national disaster fund and applied for financial assistance. The offices of the society’s national council are based in St. Louis.

At St. Mary’s, the St. Vincent de Paul ministry has served almost 10,000 people since it was established in 2003.

John and Mary have grown accustomed to helping those in need, and this disaster has done nothing to change their desire to serve.

“You cannot imagine how this will ever be cleared out, but people are going to rebuild,” said John, standing in the middle of all the destruction, a scene that could best be described as apocalyptic.

“We don’t really care about the buildings, it is the people,” John added.

On the morning of May 25, the Olsons gave away $1,000. As they walked toward the remains of St. Mary’s Church from their own home, located just outside the disaster area, they stopped to talk with people who had lost their homes and then wrote them $100 checks.

“My faith means so much to me,” Mary said. “I couldn’t get by any day without it. You are not sure why some things happen the way they do. We take so much of life for granted until you see something like this.”

Information about donations and materials needed by Catholic Charities in the Diocese of Springfield-Cape Girardeau can be found online at