In the aftermath of the deadly Sunday tornado in Joplin, Missouri, Bishop James V. Johnston of Springfield-Cape Girardeau tried to comfort survivors and expressed gratitude that more were not killed.
“We’re just encouraging survivors of the prayers and the support of the Body of Christ. We’re just trying to bring the charity of the Church to bear in the suffering of the people here. We’re just trying to reassure and comfort the people here right now, because there’s still just a lot of recovery to continue,” he told CNA from Joplin on May 24.
The bishop and Kyle Schott, executive director of the local Catholic Charities agency, surveyed the damage of the deadly tornado.
“It’s just so hard to fathom the destructive power of the storm,” the bishop said, describing the scale of the destruction as “mind-boggling.”
“When you’re out there in the middle of it, you can’t see anything but devastation: leveled houses and rescue crews trying to find people in the mess,” Schott said.
At least 117 people died in the Joplin tornado on Sunday, the deadliest single tornado in almost six decades.
St. John’s Regional Medical Center was hit hard. The nine-storey building took a direct hit, blowing out windows and throwing gurneys a distance of five blocks away. About 183 patients and 200 staffers were evacuated, according to media reports.
St. Mary’s Church, its grade school and its rectory were at the center of the tornado. They were “totally decimated” and “almost flattened,” Schott said.
Fr. Justin Monaghan, the pastor of St. Mary’s, was in the rectory when it was blown away. He survived by jumping in the bathtub and was later pulled from the rubble, without physical injury.
All that remains of the church is its outer structure. Its walls and interior have been blown away, leaving a tangled mess of wire and debris.
Most survivors are still in a state of shock. Schott wondered how anyone could have survived.
Prayers and messages of support have poured into Joplin, including a letter from Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Holy See’s Secretary of State.
The cardinal told Bishop Johnston that Pope Benedict XVI has followed the aftermath of the tornado “with deep concern” and he wants the bishop to assure the community of his closeness in prayer.
“Conscious of the tragic loss of life and the immensity of the work of rebuilding that lies ahead, he asks God the Father of mercies to grant eternal rest to the departed, consolation to the grieving, and strength and hope to the homeless and the injured,” the cardinal’s message said.
Bishop Johnston said it was “really wonderful” to receive the message from the Vatican, saying it “will really boost people’s spirits.”
Catholic Charities of Southern Missouri, which was launched only in 2008, is working to develop a response plan in cooperation with other groups, Schott said. Normally the agency focuses on intermediate and long-term recovery. It will focus on housing needs with the help of other Catholic Charities offices in neighboring dioceses.
“I’m grateful for the folks around the country who are keeping us in their prayers and have offered to support our Catholic Charities agency here,” Bishop Johnston said.
The bishop asked that donations be directed through Catholic Charities, whose website is http://ccsomo.org/.