DAWSON SPRINGS, Ky. — At the 10 o’clock Mass for Resurrection Parish on Sunday, Dec. 19, musician Karen Wallace couldn’t hold back tears as she sang and played her 12-string guitar. It was her first Mass since a tornado destroyed her home, and much of the city, on Dec. 10.
The setting for the Mass was different. The parish church had also been destroyed in the storm. So the community assembled in a new place — a 20-by-20-foot steel shed that days earlier was a weight room.
The quarters were tight, but none of the 40 parishioners in attendance complained. Instead, Wallace and the others (many of whom left with swollen eyes) were grateful to be together and to know they have a place to celebrate Mass on Christmas Eve. That didn’t seem possible a week ago.
“It’s family, and you want to celebrate Christmas with family,” she said. “For all of us to be together and keep our traditions going, as hard as it is, it means a lot to have that.”
The gift of being together for Christmas wasn’t lost on Deacon Mike Marsili, either.
“There’s been a lot of suffering, devastation and loss but, as we’re already seeing, God’s grace is so much greater — and Christmas is a time certainly to remember that because here we are to commemorate, to celebrate, the greatest gift we’ve ever been given,” Deacon Marsili said. “To me, this Christmas, it’s a gift that we didn’t lose any parishioners. Some of them still have a long road ahead, but they’re still here.”
Most of the homes in the Resurrection Parish community were not hit directly, except for Wallce and a few others. Dawson Springs Mayor Chris Smiley said last week that 75% of the town was destroyed. There were 13 deaths in the town of about 2,500.
Deacon Marsili was the first person to see the destruction caused at the parish.
The storm shattered the 50-year-old church’s tall glass panels that had reached to the roof at the front and side entrances. The shingles over a portion of the roof are gone. Bricks from one of the walls sit in debris piled on top of pews. The canopy that hung over the attached parish hall entrance is now rubble on the doorstep. Miraculously, statues of Mary and Jesus were unharmed.
It’s unclear how and when the Dawson Springs church will be rebuilt. Bishop William Medley of the Diocese of Owensboro, who visited the site this week, made clear his intention to rebuild it one way or another, saying “the church, the people, are not gone, so they’re going to need a church home.”
Soon after the reality of the unusable church set in, Deacon Marsili decided — and other parishioners agreed — that they needed to find somewhere to celebrate Mass in Dawson Springs to keep the parish heartbeat alive. That’s when parishioners Donnie and Rhonda Mills stepped up and offered to transform the shed that had been their weight room.
The steel-structure building now is outfitted with carpet and essential pieces from the original Resurrection Parish that were salvaged from the wreckage — the crucifix, tabernacle, altar, and pulpit among them. About 45 chairs were squeezed inside, with a small aisle down the middle.
For Christmas Eve Mass, Deacon Mike said, they’re going to find a way to set up the salvaged parish nativity scene, and poinsettias. If there’s an overflow of parishioners, the Mills will set up the kitchen-living room area inside their house with a live feed. Post-Mass conversation will take place inside, or on the Mills’ back porch.
“It’s like a rebirth. It’s like, Christ was born on Christmas, our church is going to be here,” Rhonda said. “Having Christmas here is going to be like the start of our year. I think it’s the beginning, and as long as we stay in touch with each other every week, we’ll get it done. We’ll rebuild. We’ll start all over.”
Parishioners even have a special guest on Christmas Eve. Bishop Medley will squeeze into the new Resurrection space with the rest of the community, to show support.
“Having prayed with St. Joseph at Mayfield last week, I very much want to be present for the Resurrection community at Christmas,” Bishop Medley said. “They have gone to great effort to find a temporary church home, and it will be a privilege to join with them to pray for themselves, family, neighbors, and friends.”