OWENSBORO, Ky. (CNS) — Following a 400-mile road trip Dec. 15 across his tornado-ravaged Diocese of Owensboro in western Kentucky, Bishop William F. Medley said he will not forget the destruction, “but what will stay with me are the people I saw.”
The tornadoes that also hit Arkansas, Tennessee, Missouri and Illinois during the night of Dec. 10 broke records as the worst tornado event in both Kentucky history and in U.S. history.
Of any other U.S. diocese hit by the twisters, the Diocese of Owensboro’s 78-parish territory bore the brunt of the disaster. The effects include the destroyed Resurrection Church in Dawson Springs, severely damaged St. Joseph Church in Mayfield and multiple parishes without power.
The number is still unknown in terms of just how many parishioners lost their homes in the nighttime devastation.
Bishop Medley considered it essential to drive all over the diocese, not only to see the impact firsthand but also because, practically speaking, the widespread power and internet outages at the time prevented digital communication with many areas.
The bishop left Owensboro at 7:30 a.m. that day, stopping first at Madisonville, where Christ the King Parish and School were operating a community resource center out of the gym. After that, he visited Dawson Springs to see the damage at Resurrection and speak with several parishioners and Deacon Mike Marsili.
He then traveled to Princeton, where Father Jojy Joseph, HGN, narrowly avoided the tornadoes while staying in St. Paul’s parish hall basement. The parish campus was damage-free, as was Father Joseph’s other parish of St. Mark in Eddyville.
But the priest, a member of the Heralds of Good News clerical missionary society, reported that multiple parishioners, including Deacon Paul Bachi, had lost their homes in the storms.
The next stop was Mayfield, where the people of St. Joseph Parish were operating a similar community resource center — despite the damage to their church. St. Joseph’s church bell tower had been knocked down by the tornado, but a worse impact was prevented by the buffer of the former school building beside it.
After meeting with the people of St. Joseph Parish, Bishop Medley traveled more than two hours to meet with the priests of Bowling Green, who serve St. Joseph and Holy Spirit parishes in Bowling Green and the Catholic campus center at Western Kentucky University.
There, he heard from the priests — and several parishioners and seminarians — about the serious impact to Bowling Green and the surrounding areas.
Chris Durbin, a parishioner of St. Joseph Parish, said a tornado took the roof off his house, but he has been moved by everyone who has shown up to help him and others who experienced loss.
“People have their physical needs met,” he said, but added that in light of the devastation experienced and witnessed by many local people, “what they will need is counseling, or some spiritual type of help.
Father Randy Howard, pastor of Holy Spirit, echoed that “immediate needs seem to be satisfied,” but that as a parish community they are starting to look into long-term needs for people, such as cleanup and insurance concerns.
His parochial vicar, Father Stephen Van Lal Than, said the home of a leader in the local Burmese community was destroyed, and other local Burmese families are overwhelmed with the shock of what they have experienced.
And yet, “you see the best of people come out when something like this happens,” said Father Howard, affirming the community-oriented spirit of Bowling Green.
Father Ryan Harpole, pastor of St. Joseph, agreed.
“It seems because of COVID that people have been locked up and wanting to do something meaningful,” he said.
After his visit to Bowling Green, Bishop Medley told the Western Kentucky Catholic, the diocesan newspaper, that the significance was not lost on him that Dec. 15 was also the 12th anniversary of his appointment as bishop of the Diocese of Owensboro.
He said he could not imagine what he would have thought if someone had told him that over a decade later, he would be driving around western Kentucky to visit his diocese shattered by historic tornadoes.
That being said, the bishop was “profoundly moved” by his conversations with the clergy and people of the parishes he visited that day, “people who instinctively know what the Gospel message means, what it means to be a shepherd in this moment.”
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Barnstead is editor of the Western Kentucky Catholic, newspaper of the Diocese of Owensboro.