Kentucky Tornadoes: Catholics Rally to Help Parishioners, Neighbors in Need
Outpouring of donations, supplies, cards and letters reach many impacted by the fatal storms.
Last Sunday, Father David Kennedy had good reasons to cancel the 10am Mass at Resurrection parish in Dawson Springs, Kentucky: The church building’s structure was unstable, and his parishioners were dealing with devastation from five tornadoes that hit western Kentucky and surrounding states Dec. 10 and 11.
But in the end, he did celebrate the Mass when parishioner Larry Fannin — grateful that only his barn had been damaged — drove to Father Kennedy’s house 15 miles away, in Earlington, as soon as the downed trees were cleared from his road.
“The tornado went all around his house and didn’t kill him,” said Father Kennedy, who also pastors Immaculate Conception in Earlington and Holy Cross in Providence. The most powerful of the tornadoes destroyed Resurrection’s 51-year-old church and part of Dawson Springs as it cut a path of death and destruction more than 200 miles long and a mile wide through western Kentucky and two other states. The tornado missed Earlington by a half mile and didn’t reach Providence, Father Kennedy said.
“It was just [Fannin] and me having Mass for the whole parish,” the priest said. “Nobody else could be there, and, of course, we couldn’t be at the regular church. It was so special.”
The loss of a church doesn’t compare with the storm’s toll of more than 90 lives — including 77 in Kentucky — the highest tornado death toll in the state’s history. But Father Kennedy and his flock, along with thousands whose loss of homes and other buildings is now believed to be in the billions, are considering the path to recovery.
The tornadoes that hit the region that night struck hardest in the communities of Dawson Springs, Bowling Green and Mayfield in the Owensboro Diocese. As search-and-rescue efforts continue and crews work to restore power, gas and water, Catholic Charities and other organizations are working to meet residents’ basic needs.
Throughout this week the diocese of 20,000 Catholics has received thousands of calls and donations from around the country, including many cards and letters from Catholic schoolchildren, while it has also sought to meet Catholics’ spiritual needs during the crisis.
Owensboro Bishop William Medley declared Friday a day of fasting and prayer for the tornado victims and plans to fly over the diocese with the Blessed Sacrament on Tuesday.
As the diocese’s Catholic Charities office continues to help with immediate needs for food and shelter, they are distributing supplies coming in and looking ahead at providing longer-term housing assistance, said Susan Montalvo-Gesser, director of the Owensboro Diocese’s Catholic Charities office, who noted that some residents need more help because they lack insurance.
Both Bowling Green and Mayfield each lost more than 500 homes, she said. “We don’t have a number of the people who were displaced,” Montalvo-Gesser said. “We don’t have a complete number of all the people who were lost yet, who are dead, and that’s hard.”
Temporary housing is available in Mayfield, located in western Kentucky with 10,000 residents, but some are reluctant to leave their homes, even if they’re not structurally sound, in fear they will be looted, she said. All of the hotels and state park cabins in a 40-mile radius are full.
As she has visited the most affected areas this week, Montalvo-Gesser said she has tried to offer some normalcy to kids who have experienced this trauma.
In Mayfield, St. Joseph parish’s church bell tower and sanctuary were damaged but overall the church survived, said Tom Lilly, diocesan chancellor and chief administrative officer. A nearby church building was lost, but it may have protected the church from further damage, he said.
Deacon Chris Gutiérrez has spent much of the week shuttling between diocesan offices in Owensboro and Mayfield, which has strong communities of diverse parishioners. He said he has reached about 40 families.
His main goal has been bringing supplies and connecting with agencies families still in their homes who don’t speak English and may not know assistance is available. Some are indigenous Mayan Guatemalans who may hesitate to seek help because they are undocumented, he said. Their homes may be damaged, but they stay because they fear they will be looted.
Parishioners from St. Joseph parish brought water, coats and personal hygiene items, Deacon Gutiérrez said. “That first contact had been very important in reaching out to them.”
Dawson Springs, about 75 miles northeast of Mayfield, also suffered destruction and loss of life, but fewer people have been displaced, Lilly said. In an area of the town of 2,600 not affected by the tornadoes, the parish’s Knights of Columbus council and other charitable organizations are offering aid at a local school.
Father Kennedy, who has been pastor since 2015, is already receiving contributions for rebuilding the church; but in the meantime, he will offer Mass for Resurrection parish in a parishioner’s converted weight room. The church’s altar, ambo, tabernacle and other items were rescued and moved to the space, which can hold some of the parish’s 28 families, he said.
As Stephen Zanone traveled through the area this week, he couldn’t reach Dawson Springs, which was closed off. But the Knights of Columbus Kentucky state deputy reported that many Knights councils in his jurisdiction are providing food, distributing supplies and other assistance.
Zanone also met a fellow Knight severely impacted in the disaster. I was “looking a brother in the eye who lost everything, handing him a $100 gift card and giving him a hug and telling him that that’s just the beginning. … He knows that we’re going to be there for him. We’re there, and we’re going to continue to be there.”
The outpouring of assistance has been overwhelming, said Zanone, adding that, so far, the Knights have raised $100,000 for relief, including $10,000 of the Kentucky jurisdiction’s funds.
Also, the Knights’ Supreme Council has donated $100 Mastercard gift cards.
“I’m fielding text messages and Facebook messages about where is the need, how many people do we need to send, what do we need to send and where? We will be boots on the ground, and we will be helping people not only clean up, but we’re committed to helping as much as we can with the rebuilding process in many instances.”
While there is a surplus of some supplies, Zanone and his fellow Knights are beginning to send out specific requests, such as for Christmas toys, he said.
Supplies are coming in, but the problem is getting them to the people who need them, Deacon Gutiérrez said. “A lot of help is trickling in in spots but doesn’t mean that a good segment of the community is being reached.”
The diocese is receiving calls, letters and donations from around the country, Lilly said. As of Friday, it had received $950,000 from 2,100 contributors, including $250,000 from Catholic Charities USA.
“The amazing thing is most people who are calling in to help are people who’ve experienced disasters themselves,” he said. “It’s a lot of people who went through Hurricane Harvey and went through Hurricane Sandy and went through floods or disasters of their own — and they remember, and they know how long it takes to recover.”
Catholic schoolchildren continue to send letters and cards that are distributed to families in need. On Friday, the Owensboro Catholic schools delivered 1,200 letters, Lilly said, adding that he encourages the schools to write rather than send donations.
Lilly emphasized the importance of intentional prayer. “We’re begging to coordinate efforts of intentional prayer for these communities because they are devastated.”
Along with prayer, Knights from Kentucky and other locations will be ready to help with cleanup and rebuilding as soon as FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) and insurance adjustors have gone through the damage sites.
In three to six months, there will be a need for cleanup and rebuilding help and additional funds, Montalvo-Gesser said.
What tornado victims don’t need right now is bottled water or clothes, she said. A monetary donation best helps to reach needs. In Mayfield, propane stoves, heaters and generators are needed. Visa or Mastercard gift cards, gas cards from Walmart, Murphy USA or Kroger are helpful, as are Dollar General cards, Montalvo-Gesser said.
Other needed items include flashlights, baby food, matches, lighters, long underwear, underwear, gloves, socks and personal items.
Life is moving fast for those impacted by the tornadoes, but those in Mayfield are motivated by Gospel values, Deacon Gutiérrez said.
“Jesus is calling us to be his hands and the feet, and the words and the comfort, for others right now; and this is where everybody’s at. Nobody’s hesitating about giving any number of hours without sleep or even caring for themselves to care for others — and that has been just amazing.”
HOW YOU CAN HELP
To donate to the Knights of Columbus Kentucky Tornado Relief:
1. Go to KofC.org;
2. Click on “What We Do.”
3. Click on “Charity.”
4. Click on “Disaster Relief Donate Now” to make a donation.
Donate to the Owensboro Diocese’s Kentucky Tornado Relief:
Donate to Catholic Charities USA at:
Donate to the rebuilding of Resurrection Church in Dawson Springs, Ky., by mailing contributions to:
Immaculate Conception Parish
112 S Day St., Earlington, KY 42410