National News

Kentucky Bishop After Tornadoes: People ‘Resilient’ in Face of Tragedy

A photo taken with a drone shows people working inside a destroyed home in Mayfield, Ky., Dec. 11, 2021, after a devastating tornado ripped through the town. More than 30 tornadoes were reported across six states late Dec. 10, and early Dec. 11, killing dozens of people and leaving a trail of devastation. (Photo: Catholic News Service)

NEW YORK — The tearful homilies that Kentucky pastor Father David Kennedy gave on Sunday morning, worried about the well-being of one community of parishioners, turned hopeful by day’s end as he gave a private Mass to a parishioner that narrowly escaped a tornado.

By the evening of Monday, Dec. 13, Father Kennedy had heard from three parishioners that narrowly escaped this past weekend’s tornado outbreak. Now looking ahead, he’s hoping to hear some more survival stories as the community continues to recover and begins to rebuild.

Father Kennedy is the pastor of three western Kentucky parishes. Holy Cross in Providence, Immaculate Conception in Earlington, and Resurrection in Dawson Springs. The tornadoes missed Providence and Earlington.

Dawson Springs, meanwhile, was hit hard — 13 people between the ages of 34 and 86 were confirmed dead. The state’s death toll had risen to 74 by Monday night, with more than 100 still missing, according to Gov. Andy Beshear.

One of Father Kennedy’s Dawson Springs parishioners that narrowly survived was Larry Fannin. Father Kennedy told a story about how a tornado came onto Fannin’s property, ripped off the roof of his barn, and circled the home, just barely missing it. Later on, two people nearby then cleared the road for Fannin to drive off of his property, where he attended a private Mass in Earlington led by Father Kennedy. The choir was in the church hall practicing by then, Father Kennedy said, so he celebrated the Mass in his residence.

“He is just so grateful and thankful,” Father Kennedy said. “He knows it should have taken out his house. He knows that he lived through a miracle.”

Father Kennedy’s other two Dawson Springs parishioners that narrowly escaped were the Resurrection Parish sacristan Ella Smith, and her husband, Ron. Father Kennedy said they were in the inner hall of their home when a tornado struck their house. Debris fell on top of them, he said, but they ultimately were able to pull the stuff off of them and were unharmed.

“It made me feel good that Larry and Ella had survived; that there were some survival stories,” Father Kennedy said. “I’m hoping to get more of that soon.”

The Dawson Springs community has an arduous rebuilding task ahead to rebuild. Father Kennedy said the town has no water, gas or electricity either, which has displaced people whose homes survived in addition to those whose homes were destroyed.

Resurrection Parish was also destroyed. Father Kennedy said they’re in communication with the insurance company about the damage, but it’s unclear if and when it’ll be reopened.

The destruction of Dawson Springs is the reality multiple Kentucky communities face. Bishop William Medley of Owensboro, where many of the affected communities are located, said on Monday that it’s still unbelievable what happened.

He told The Tablet that trust in the Catholic faith will help the “resilient” Kentuckians through this; especially knowing they have the support of so many around the world.

“I don’t think we can ever comprehend what happens in such a tragedy that happens so suddenly,” Bishop Medley said. “The message I get from all of these people from around the world is that when we’re united in Christ we’re never alone and while that won’t heal the broken hearts of those who lost loved ones it will sustain them and they can go on knowing that people love them, care for them, and are there to help them rebuild.”

Bishop Medley said he continues to hear from bishops across the country asking how they can help, and he met with Catholic Charities USA on Monday about the recovery efforts. He said the diocesan St. Jerome Parish in Fancy Farm, Ky., has become a distribution center by offering shelter for people who are homeless and hot meals around the clock.

Bishop Medley also noted that everyone in the diocese is “edified” by the outpouring support they’ve received, including from Pope Francis by way of his weekend Angelus prayer, and a telegram.

“It warms my heart and the heart of my people to know that we’re in such a powerful way on the mind of Pope Francis himself,” Bishop Medley said.

On Sunday, Dec. 12, Bishop Medley participated in Mass at St. Jerome’s, led by Father Eric Riley of the largely Hispanic St. Joseph Parish in Mayfield, Ky., which was damaged by the tornadoes. Mayfield as a whole was one of the hardest hit communities.

Even still, the Mass drew 200 people.

Sunday happened to be the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, so, according to Bishop Medley, Father Riley’s homily he retold the story of Our Lady of Guadalupe appearing to San Juan and providing a message of hope to the people that were burdened at the time.

“We assured them that Our Lady of Guadalupe would continue to sustain them,” Bishop Medley said.

Donations to help with recovery efforts can be made through the Catholic Charities USA disaster relief page.