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As Storm Paralyzes Much of Texas, Catholic Charities Shift Into Overdrive

Ice and snow blanket Dallas Feb. 15, 2021, leading to hazardous travel conditions and numerous power outages. (Photo: Jose S. Martinez/, via CNS)

NEW YORK— For almost a week, amid an historic winter storm that’s left much of Texas paralyzed and shut down, Father Pat O’Brien and others at St. Pius X Catholic Church in San Antonio have operated under a simple mantra: “Whatever the need is, we will be open.”

They’ve served as a warming center like a number of Catholic churches and agencies. They’ve offered breakfast, lunch and dinner since Tuesday; set up a private internet network for students and remote workers, boiled water and taken out sport equipment for kids to have fun in the gym.

“We’ve just been working on getting people warm and telling people to come,” Father O’Brien said.

As of Feb. 19, nearly 350,000 Texans were without power, down from almost three million the night before. In many parts of the state temperatures again fell below freezing.

To further complicate things, the severe weather jeopardized water drinking systems statewide. According to an Associated Press report, seven million people – a quarter of the population – are under orders to boil tap water before drinking it, as the low temperatures damaged infrastructure and pipes and made the water unreliable.

The food supply chain has also been disrupted. In a tweet Thursday, Bishop Daniel Flores of Brownsville granted his diocese a dispensation from abstinence of meat today, citing the struggles many in the diocese still face.

“Many families in the Diocese will have no other option except to eat what they have,” Bishop Flores said. “The law does not intend to add hardship to what is already a situation of great hardship for many. Those who can observe the discipline may, of course, do so. I suggest for intentions of those suffering at this time.”

Father Christopher Muñoz of Church of the Blessed Sacrament in San Antonio said while power is back in the community, they have very little water pressure. So, he said he keeps five gallon jugs in the church for anyone in need to fill up thermoses with.

Father O’Brien said everyone needs to be frugal and make sure they have water saved until the power grid is normalized. To help people out, St. Pius X boiled pots of water throughout the day so people don’t have to boil as much of their own.

“(The state) is asking them to keep their power down for the power grid so people are trying to be good,” Father O’Brien said. “We have big pots of water that we’ll boil so people can just come and get our boiled water and that way it saves them. We have the big commercial stoves so it’s a whole lot more efficient for us to boil it.”

Down in the southern part of the state Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley has done what they can to help the local McAllen community – where its Humanitarian Respite Center is located – and asylum seekers on both sides of the border.

In a call with reporters Feb. 18, Sister Norma Pimentel, the agencies executive director, said they “welcome local people that may need a space where to stay, to contact us and we will figure out what we can do to assist them.” They organized food drives and dropped off hot meals and baskets of food to certain locations that were hurting.

Sister Norma also emphasized that asylum seekers in Matamoros – across the border from Brownsville were still suffering from the extreme cold. On Feb.18, they sent truckloads of supplies to help people stay warm.

“People at the camp are still struggling,” she said. “We are continuously sending items like a blanket and sleeping bags but that’s not enough. We requested a lot of those hot water bags that they can put in their sleeping bag, or where they sleep to keep themselves warm and so we’ve received a lot of those.”

“[..] They need help because conditions are continuing to be very severe,” she added.

Like Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, St. Pius X and Church of the Blessed Sacrament have brought help to people in the community that can’t come to them.

Father Muñoz and Father Inna Gundreddy, the parochial vicar, have taken parishioners calls to go check on their family members.

Father O’Brien said people in the community with experience in the north have driven meals out to people stuck at home to go along with the core group of five leading efforts at the church.

“I’ve cleaned out my kitchen. I’ve cleaned out my freezer. A lot of us just cleaned everything out just to get the stuff done and we’re going to town. People have been very, very, very generous,” Father O’Brien told The Tablet.