FREDERICKSBURG, Va. (CNS) — Frank Crissey trudged through the snow around his elderly mother’s home in Dumfries the evening of Jan. 3, clearing fallen branches as he went.
After making sure his mother had food and power, at 7:30 p.m. he headed home driving toward Interstate 95. Taking into account the weather, the Fredericksburg local thought at worst it would take two hours to reach his home 30 miles away.
Little did he know, he would soon join thousands of other motorists spending the night in their cars. Some 21 hours and one bottle of water later, he finally exited his vehicle, happy to be home after living through what he described as “a nightmare.”
“Sometimes it takes a challenge to change our perspective on life,” Crissey told the Arlington Catholic Herald, the newspaper of the Diocese of Arlington.
The challenge came in the form of a wintry mix of freezing rain followed by more than a foot of snow. The dangerous winter weather caused accidents that blocked both I-95 and Route 1, which runs parallel to the freeway, Jan. 3 and 4, the Virginia Department of Transportation said. Beyond motorists, service personnel, homeowners and homeless people were adversely affected.
But hidden in the snow, there was grace.
As the first lights started to flicker and then go out in some neighborhoods due to the storm, people began stepping up to help others out.
Kara Horne, a resident of the College Heights neighborhood of Fredericksburg and mother of four, said her home lost power about 11:30 a.m., Jan. 3. A neighbor they barely knew shared his generator.
“It was really beautiful to see our neighbor on the corner running power cords into the houses of two of his neighbors,” Horne said.
She and her husband, Michael, were surprised and touched when the same neighbor came over with a spare generator. They used it to fire up their waffle iron.
Regardless of the snow and lack of full power, the Hornes were still able to make their daily pilgrimage for 9 a.m. Mass at nearby St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception Church.
“It’s why we decided to live in this neighborhood, so we could get to church no matter what,” Horne said.
When the snow was falling in earnest Jan. 3, Horne witnessed the priests helping push parishioners’ cars that were stuck in the snowy parking lot after Mass.
“The snow was perfectly designed to get cars stuck,” Father Sean Koehr, parochial vicar, said.
Father Koehr said that as more people began to lose power, the church opened its former convent so people could take a hot shower and charge their phones.
The heavy snow also pulled down trees and branches, including a large tree that fell across the entrances to the church property. The Knights of Columbus put out a call for help. Knight Michael Davis responded with his wife, Pearl, their daughter, and a chainsaw. They worked together with Juan Chavez and his 13-year-old son Luke to cut the tree and clear the parking lot.
By Jan. 6, the roads were clear, but many homes remained without power. Holy Cross Academy religion teacher Julie Olsen usually attends the 6 a.m. daily Mass, but with school canceled and no power at home, she decided to attend the 9 a.m. Mass. She stepped into the warm church, grateful for a break from her chilly home only to realize she wasn’t the only one escaping the cold.
“I came into the church and found a homeless man who was soaking wet,” Olsen said. “I asked him if he was OK and he explained that his tent had collapsed in the snow.”
His name was Noris and he looked to be in his late 70s, Olsen said. She talked to Father Philip M. Cozzi, parochial vicar, before Mass to see if the church had any spare clothes available. When none could be found, she called her sons to bring extra clothes.
“I brought him into church for Mass and when the clothes came, I helped him get dressed. It was my first time directly helping someone like that,” Olsen said. “I remember when we were sitting in the church and seeing the Nativity scene that it all seemed so Dorothy Day-ish to me. She once said: ‘If Jesus can be born in a stable, maybe he can also be born in me.’”
With the help of parishioners, Olsen reached the Thurman Brisben Center, the area’s largest full-service social services center. She helped Noris with the required assessment and drove him to the center by way of the McDonald’s drive-thru for breakfast. Noris was later able to be placed in a local shelter.
“It was a real blessing and grace to know that the Lord is at work in this,” Olsen said.
“That is why churches are here, a place for the people of God to come.”
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Kassock is a contributor to the Arlington Catholic Herald, newspaper of the Diocese of Arlington.