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Relief efforts for tornado victims show ‘Church at its best’

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By Marnie McAllister

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — St. Jerome Church in Fancy Farm, Kentucky, became a makeshift shelter for storm survivors over the Dec. 11-12 weekend and shifted Dec. 13 to become a distribution site for relief supplies.

Four tornadoes, including one that carved a 225-mile-long path through four states, struck devastating blows to western Kentucky overnight Dec. 10. The twisters left whole communities in shambles.

Mayfield and Dawson Springs, Kentucky, were all but destroyed by the storms. Catholic churches in both towns suffered heavy damage.

As of Dec. 14, at least 74 people were confirmed dead in the Bluegrass State, according to Gov. Andy Beshear. Search and rescue efforts were still underway.

Twelve miles from Mayfield, St. Jerome has responded with the spirit of Gaudete Sunday, said Sister Martha Keller, an Ursuline Sister of Mount St. Joseph, Kentucky, who is pastoral associate of St. Jerome.

“This is Church at its best,” she said, speaking through tears after recounting the losses people have suffered. “People are talking about Christmas and what we can do. But this is Church at its best.

“This weekend was Gaudete Sunday. We can rejoice because there are people being Christ for each other,” she told The Record, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Louisville.

Gaudete Sunday is the third Sunday of Advent; “gaudete” means “rejoice.”

Early Dec. 11, the morning after the tornadoes hit, the parish hall began housing families who survived the storms but who lost their homes — a total of 25 people.

They arrived with nothing but the clothes they were wearing — clothes that were soaking wet.

“They changed into clean clothes and we washed the clothes they had,” she said. Beyond that, “there are heart-wrenching stories,” she added.

“Saturday afternoon, there was this mother (in the shelter) who looked upset and I sat down and said, ‘What can I do?’ I thought she might be thinking about her next steps,” said Sister Keller. “She said, ‘I can’t even concentrate. My best friend lost her 3-year-old daughter in the storm.'”

“Some volunteers went down the road yesterday and they went into a mobile home and found two elderly people huddled together who were dead. A woman was found in a tree,” she said.

“We have had parishioners outside Fancy Farm who lost their homes. They were in their basement,” she said.

“We have been running by the seat of our pants waiting for the Red Cross and FEMA to give us direction,” she added. FEMA is the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

By Dec. 13, Sister Keller said St. Jerome, located in Graves County, received direction from the American Red Cross. The parish hall, ill-suited to provide long-term shelter, is shifting to a distribution site for supplies.

She noted that people are most in need of money, particularly in the form of Visa gift cards that can be used anywhere.

“We’ve been trying to get Visa cards so they can get gas, hotels, clothes. They don’t want donated clothes because we don’t know sizes” and getting the right sizes to the right people would not be feasible, she said.

Another need, access to clean water, is being addressed for the long term by Louisville-based Water with Blessings. The charity has sent 20 Sawyer PointOne water filters to St. Jerome. The filters can be distributed to families or groups for sharing access to clean water.

Sister Keller noted that people are more familiar and comfortable with bottled water and may be a bit skeptical of the filters at first. She planned to offer training on use of the water filters, something she and her parishioners have done in the past with people who lack access to clean water in Jamaica.

The filters can clean water from rainfall, springs, old wells and other sources to reduce reliance on bottled water. The website of Water with Blessings — waterwithblessings.org — has information about the organization and how to support the effort to provide water filters to storm survivors.

The Archdiocese of Louisville will take up a collection to assist storm survivors the weekend of Dec. 18 and 19. The collection will be directed to the Diocese of Owensboro, which covers western Kentucky.

Donations will be used to “respond to immediate emergency humanitarian needs and will aid in long-term rebuilding and recovery efforts as well as in any pastoral and reconstruction needs of the church,” according to an announcement from Louisville Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz.

Catholic Charities USA is accepting donations at https://www.catholiccharitiesusa.org to assist victims of the tornadoes. The site has a button to hit to donate for tornado relief.

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