Midwest tornado damage is widespread, as churches become centers for aid, prayer.As one of the few buildings in town to come through intense storms March 2 nearly intact, St. Francis Xavier Church has become a natural staging area for relief efforts, community organizing and prayer.

Four days after a devastating tornado hit, volunteers and professionals used St. Xavier, the nearby Henryville Community Church and a community center 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 largely destroyed by a wave of storms that created dozens of tornadoes across 11 states March 2 and 3.

More than 40 people were killed, including one in Clark County, where Henryville and nearby Marysville took direct hits. 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.

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 March 5 phone interview that if classes hadn't 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 had been ripped off. Inside, the papers on her desk were undisturbed.

The tornado hit at the normal dismissal time of 3 p.m., Guernsey said. "The bus drivers were the heroes here. If they hadn't sent the buses out early, it would've been a different story."

Also reeling were parishioners of St. Luke Catholic Church in Salyersville, Ky., which was destroyed by another tornado in the same weather front. 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 Sister Jan Barthel's office and its adjoining wall were left standing atop the church's basement foundation.

Father Bob Damron, pastor 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 parishioners will meet for Mass in one another's homes until a new church is built.

Catholics from neighboring parishes --- St. Martha; St. Michael, Paintsville and St. Francis, Pikeville --- gathered Saturday morning and afternoon to salvage what they could.

Amazingly, the tabernacle was found with the Eucharist safely enclosed in the ciborium, even though the tabernacle was lying face down with its door open. Similarly, all the vessels of sacred oils were found upright and unbroken.

At Sunday Mass at St. Francis Xavier March 4, Father Steven Schaftlein, pastor, said the church was "spared to be a symbol of hope and also to walk the talk. We're praying here. That's our first work. But underneath is the food, the clothing that will help sustain the community in the months ahead."

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, reported The Criterion, newspaper of the Indianapolis Archdiocese, which includes Henryville.

Aside from damage to the basement kitchen and some damage to the church's roof, the church came through the tornado largely unscathed.

Just 24 hours after Tom Nolot and a crew of volunteers stopped preparing for a Friday night fish fry to take shelter from the approaching tornado, Nolot and his wife, Joyce, were back --- frying up the fish to feed rescue workers and crews from the Indiana National Guard, the Clark County Sheriff's Office and other rescue workers and volunteers.

Elsewhere in the Diocese of Lexington, Ky., Prince of Peace Church in hard-hit West Liberty lost the roofs of both the rectory and the church, reported Thomas F. Shaughnessy, diocesan communications director and editor of Crossroads, its newspaper.

Just a few days earlier, another wave of tornadoes left 13 people dead in Illinois, Missouri and Tennessee and a trail of wreckage that appeared to be the most substantial in Branson, Mo., and in Harrisburg and Ridgway, Ill., where the storm destroyed the entire town, including St. Joseph Church.

"We have so much to be thankful for today. I'm so glad to see all of you here, and safe," Father Steven Beatty told the congregation at Mass March 4 at St. Mary Church in Shawneetown, Ill. He offered prayers for six Harrisburg residents who died in the tornado.

The priest is administrator of four parishes in southern Illinois, including St. Mary and St. Joseph, where Mass was to have been celebrated.

Father Beatty read a letter from Belleville Bishop Edward K. Braxton and the former pastor, Father Mark Stec, both of whom reminded the congregation that the church is really "the people of God," not the buildings, no matter how beautiful they are or how long they have stood as the gathering place for worship.

Father Stec said, "What has not been taken away from you is your ability to lift your hearts to God in prayer." Father Beatty added, "We experience a range of emotions: gratitude that no one was seriously hurt and grief at our great loss."

Soon after the tornado rearranged the landscape of Ridgway, blowing off roofs and using pieces of slate from the church roof as projectiles slicing into homes blocks from the building, volunteers began cleaning up.

Father Beatty said soon after the volunteers began making their way to the church grounds, they made a circle to pray, Father Beatty told The Messenger, Belleville's diocesan newspaper.

"St. Joseph Parish is still standing all around me," he said. "The whole community of faith here is the strongest I've ever seen. I would have said that a week ago, and we're stronger than that (now)."

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.

With Indianapolis farther from tornado-afflicted region of Indiana than nearby Louisville, Ky., the Louisville-based Society of St. Vincent de Paul was seeking donations from area conferences and channeling it through Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish in New Albany, Ind.


Contributing to this story were Sean Gallagher in Henryville, Gwen Hall in Prestonsburg, Patricia Zapor in Washington and Liz Quirin in Shawneetown.

{gallery width=100 height=100}gallery/2012/0309/tornadoes/{/gallery}