BOWLING GREEN, Ky. — Bowling Green resident Janet Jessie was home on Dec. 16, six days after a tornado tore through her property. At that point, the dismantled part of her metal roof was patched. However, debris was still littered throughout her yard.
Then, unexpectedly, the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, Kentucky, disaster relief team arrived.
Led by Sister Luke Boiarski, in a maroon pickup truck with a trailer attached, multiple vehicles pulled into Jessie’s driveway. Once Jessie learned who they were, she sat on her front porch for the next few hours, a cup of coffee in hand, watching in awe as they sawed fallen trees and moved piles of remains.
“I haven’t been able to do nothing but cry,” said Jessie, a local bartender. “I’m so grateful.”
Sister Luke, director of the Lay Mission Volunteer Program, who leads the disaster relief efforts, explained that the Sisters of Charity volunteer disaster relief team was born seven years ago. That happened after a trip to the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Glacier, Montana, to help build ramps to assist elderly residents was canceled because flooding made area railroad lines impassable.
As Sister Luke tells it, instead of abandoning their relief efforts, the sisters decided to reroute to Joplin, Missouri — where a vortex of tornadoes had just hit — to help victims there.
The sisters were so moved by the experience that Sister Luke bought the trailer and started collecting money for tools. In the years since, they have responded to disasters in places that include Washington, Illinois; Little Rock, Arkansas; Chattanooga, Tennessee; New Orleans, Louisiana and Holly Springs, Mississippi.
But this week’s disaster in Kentucky felt closer to home, Sister Luke said, because many of the volunteers and sisters have ties to the tornado-impacted areas. Therefore, she noted, “everybody wanted to respond.”
Erica Watts, a Greater Louisville Head Start Program employee volunteering with the Sisters of Charity disaster relief team, said the past week had been “emotional” because the twisters’ destruction hit so close to her residence in Louisville.
“It’s so close to home. That could’ve been my family,” Watts said ruefully. “I’ve been to so many other places with devastation, but to be here in your home state and to know it’s friends and family not too far from you – it’s been heartbreaking.”
The team of 15 volunteers, ranging from college age to elderly, worked this week in Bowling Green and Campbellsville. They provided debris and tree cleanup in both communities — and gave hundreds of dollars in gift cards to those they helped. Bowling Green is about 115 miles southwest, and Campbellsville is about 90 miles southeast, of Louisville.
What’s left of the inside of Resurrection Parish in Dawson Springs, Kentucky.
(Down the center of the photo you can see the statue of Mary — unharmed) pic.twitter.com/5kzab8yJxo
— John Lavenburg (@JohnLavenburg) December 15, 2021
Parts of both communities were destroyed by the killer tornadoes that swept across the state Dec. 10.
The relief team ended up in Campbellsville after local authorities told them of the destruction to some of the local farms there. Sister Luke called what they saw “heartbreaking,” with the homes “flattened to the ground.” Their hearts broke even more, she said, when they remembered that Christmas is just around the corner.
“It really didn’t hit most of us that it’s Christmas until we started dragging up Christmas lights,” Sister Luke said. “And then it hit us that Christmas was next week and their tree’s gone, their lights are gone, [and] probably their presents are gone, so it really hit us hard, [realizing] that they had young children.”
At the site of one particular tornado-ravaged home, Julia Gerwe, an AmeriCorps volunteer working with the Sisters of Charity relief team, spent the day helping the family search the rubble for personal belongings. Ultimately, they recovered photos, schoolbooks, dolls, and more, but one of the most important finds: the headstone for the family goat, Buttercup.
“It’s important to help them salvage what they can,” Gerwe said. “I know if it were my house, I would want to find everything I could.”
Back in Bowling Green, Sister Luke was told of the need for relief at Jessie’s home through the city of Bowling Green’s volunteer operation that had been set up throughout the week. Other than the portion of the roof that was ripped away — and the debris left behind in the yard — Jessie’s home was structurally intact. The most damage was to the garage in the rear of the house, which collapsed onto the cars inside.
“I’ve seen the light. No complaints here. I’m lucky to be here,” Jessie said. “The main thing is we’re safe. Everything else is replaceable.”
As the day’s cleanup efforts were winding down, and an on-and-off rain began to settle in, Sister Luke took up a chair on the front porch next to Jessie and explained why the team’s work is important, beyond the immediate relief it provides.
It boils down to lifting spirits and creating relationships, she said.
“It’s a very heart-wrenching ministry but a very good ministry to be able to be here with people because I don’t know you and you don’t know me, but I think a relationship would develop in the future and that’s what happens. It’s about a relationship with the people,” Sister Luke said.
“I always go to what St. Francis of Assisi said: ‘Preach the Gospel at all times. Use words if necessary,’” she added. “I love that because people can talk all they want, but when you get out here and deal with people in the midst of hurting you go from a really sad experience, your heart’s breaking until you see things cleared off and you see the homeowner get a little bit more hope.”
When the work was finished at Jessie’s home, the Sisters of Charity disaster relief team loaded up the vehicles and followed Sister Luke to the next location. There wasn’t a set destination, though even if there was, as multiple people put it: “Sister Luke goes where the Holy Spirit takes her.”