National News

Temporary Church Steels Faith of Parish After Destructive Tornadoes

PROSPECT HEIGHTS — It’s been about four months since the Resurrection Parish community in Dawson Springs, Ky., relocated into a 20-by-20 foot steel shed after a tornado destroyed their church, and parishioner Rhonda Mills says there are still Masses where a wave of emotion comes over everybody for the simple reason that they’re worshiping together.

A statue of the Virgin Mary holding Jesus stands after a tornado tore through Dawson Springs, Ky. on Dec. 10, 2021 and destroyed Resurrection Parish church. (Photo: Courtesy of Resurrection Parish)

The first Mass in their new — albeit temporary — church was Dec. 19. The second was on Christmas Eve, and Mills said they’ve maintained a consistent showing since, noting that last week’s Palm Sunday Mass was the largest crowd ever at about 60 people.

She predicted an “overflow crowd” and an “added significance” to this year’s 10 a.m. Easter Mass as well, after all that they’ve endured, and the long road that lies ahead.

Deacon Mike Marsili noted how the name of the parish coincides with Easter.

“I think it will take on some added significance because of the name of our parish itself and a reminder that whatever suffering we endure, the promise of the resurrection stands and that’s what we’re named after,” Deacon Marsili said.

The Resurrection Parish church was destroyed by the killer tornadoes that swept across Kentucky on Dec. 10, 2021. Dawson Springs was one of the hardest-hit communities. An estimated 75% of the town was destroyed. There were 13 deaths in the town of about 2,500.

Almost immediately the Resurrection parishioners sought a temporary place to worship — fearful that if they didn’t, people would go to other parishes in the area and they would lose their community. The solution was the steel shed on the property of Mills and her husband Donnie.

The quarters are tight. About 40-50 people fit inside. They’ve since invested in a split unit to more effectively heat and cool the structure. Any overflow attenders listen to the Mass through speakers run from from the Mills’ kitchen and participate with missalettes. When it comes time for communion, Deacon Marsili brings it up to them.

Mills admits that the way the makeshift services have galvanized the parish community is somewhat unexpected.

“Every week I’m surprised at how many people show up because honestly if I didn’t live right in front of it there would be some Sundays where I would say, ‘I think I’ll just go to Mass in Madisonville today,’ but that hasn’t happened,” Mills said.

She noted that there are several parishes for people to choose from within 20-30 minutes of Dawson Springs.

Mills added that in some ways worshiping in the shed has brought the parish community closer together. She said that after Mass, people hang around in the house or on the patio to check in on one another and catch up. Some count collections together at the kitchen table.

“As far as the parish, I feel like we’re more in tune to what’s going on in other people’s lives and we’re just somewhat closer,” Mills said. “I’ve gone here since 1985 and I feel a closeness that I haven’t necessarily felt either. It’s growing together and working toward a common goal.”

Bishop William Medley of Owensboro said that the way the parish continues to get together and regularly worship is “inspiring.”

A Long Road Ahead

The Tablet attended the first Mass at the makeshift Resurrection Parish church on Dec. 19 and saw the way that many parishioners were overcome with emotion.

One of those was Karen Wallace, the parish’s music minister and a parishioner of 47 years, who couldn’t hold back tears as she sang and played her 12-string guitar from the back row.

Wallace’s home was severely damaged by the tornadoes. The walls and foundation were OK. She said they lost about half of the roof and all of the windows have to be replaced.

“We’ve had some bumps in the road with some of the contractors, but we’re getting there. It’s just very slow going,” Wallace said. “I fully expected to be there by May 1, but that’s not going to happen.”

Bishop Medley said the diocese has raised more than $8.7 million in relief funds. About $550,000 of that total was a Red Cross grant specifically for Catholic Charities to hire case managers to work directly with those affected. That grant has allowed Catholic Charities to increase its staff from two to 15 over the last four months, with at least five more joining soon.

Khaibar Shafaq, one of the Catholic Charities case managers working on long term tornado relief, said that case managers are assigned specific victims to “walk alongside during the long recovery journey.”

He noted that the need is “huge,” with temporary housing at the top of the list. Limited space has forced people into neighboring towns while they wait.

Other needs include: The reconstruction or construction of homes, utility support, appliances, clothing, food, medical care, employment, transportation, childcare resources, financial assistance, and legal help to work through the insurance process.

Shafaq said there’s a long road ahead.

“It needs a lot of resources and efforts to get back to the minimum normal stage, but people are working,” Shafaq said. “It’s moving in the right direction, but of course, it takes time. We’re not talking about 5-10 houses. We’re talking 300-400 families that were affected by the tornado.”

Deacon Marsili also acknowledged the emotional toll the tornadoes took on the community.

“Every time you drive into town and you see all of this land that the stuff that was there is just gone, and then there’s one house going up now as a new construction, but it may be sitting now on three lots because the neighbors are not coming back, and so we’re going to have a lot of empty to look at,” Deacon Marsili said.

“It’ll be that way the rest of my life here, and that wears on you a bit too. You worry about the future of the town itself a little bit.”

A New Resurrection Parish Church

The Resurrection Parish community will have a new church. Bishop Medley has said as much on multiple occasions, although, it’s been a slow process over the last four months, the same as other recovery efforts. That said, important steps forward are expected to be taken in the next few weeks.

Deacon Marsili said what remains of the 50-year-old church will be demolished in the coming days. They’re also waiting to get an initial estimate from a contractor on the cost of the rebuild.

In the meantime, they’ve begun contemplating designs. Mills, who sits on the building committee, said they’ve recently been visiting other churches for inspiration.

Deacon Marsili estimated the new church could be completed by the end of this year or in the first quarter of 2023, but he noted that it won’t be an issue if it takes a bit longer.