New parish hall serves as storm shelter, base for recovery
Story by S.L. Hansen
(SNR) - Mother’s Day this past May 11 took a turn for the worst when 17 different tornados dropped out of the clouds over Nebraska.
In their wake, they leveled some houses and tore shingles off others, twisted farm irrigation systems around barns and trees, splintered trees and sucked entire outbuildings and other property into the sky, never to be seen again.
Unaware of the tornado warnings in Sutton, Father William Holoubek was in prayer before the tabernacle at St. Mary Church shortly after 4 p.m. Two parishioners rushed in to take cover in the basement of the new parish hall, which had been designed as a storm shelter when it was built a little more than a year ago.
Father Holoubek followed them into the basement. Once underground, they listened for the telltale “freight train” noise of the EF3 tornado that was plowing through Sutton with 150-mph winds.
Instead, they heard the heart-wrenching sound of glass shattering, which turned out to be the protective glass covering the church’s beautiful rose window. With that gone, several panes of the stained glass were damaged.
Additionally, some shingles were missing, and the property was littered with debris, but that was the worst of it.
“Overall it wasn’t very bad,” assessed Father Holoubek.
About an hour later and 40 miles away in Beaver Crossing, Father Maurice Current had just returned to the rectory after attending graduation at St. Gregory the Great Seminary in Seward. The sky to the west looked menacingly dark, so he turned on the radio to listen for weather reports.
“At one point, they said, ‘Residents of Beaver Crossing, take shelter now,’” Father Current recalled.
He hurried to the basement just before the power went out. In the dark, he listened to the power of yet another EF3 tornado that had skipped through nearby Cordova on its way to ransacking Beaver Crossing.
Across the street from Sacred Heart Church, a woman cowered over her two young children as the tornado ripped the roof off their single-level home and sent it crashing into the front of the church.
When the tornado passed and the sirens stopped, Father Current tentatively emerged from his basement shelter.
“I was just amazed at how much debris was in the yard,” he said.
Across the street, a neighbor had already helped the mother and her kids out of their demolished house. Father Current checked on them before surveying the damage to Sacred Heart Church.
The windows on the front of the church were all broken. A 2x4 crashed through the Sacred Heart window, destroying it.
The tornado also lifted the church’s roof, cracking the porch’s supporting beams about halfway up before dropping the roof back down. The roof now sits several inches above the walls, leaving a gap.
Beaver Crossing was one of the hardest hit communities that day. Nearly every home was damaged, ranging from missing shingles to total destruction.
Without electricity, Father Current has had a difficult time getting in touch with everybody in his parish.
“We found out that we don’t have people’s cell phone numbers, and that has to change,” he said.
Once the roads were cleared of fallen trees and other debris, a volunteer drove Father Current door to door so he could check on his parishioners.
A week later, he still hadn’t spoken to some of them who had temporarily moved in with relatives or friends in Friend, Exeter, Milford and other nearby towns. However, the “grapevine” has indicated that everybody made it through.
Both priests consider it providential that nobody was hurt or killed during these powerful storms. However, a 69-year-old volunteer in Sutton died during cleanup. He is mourned and honored by locals who appreciate his self-sacrificing effort to help the community recover.
St. Mary’s parish hall became the Sutton command center for the Red Cross and the Salvation Army. A large emergency generator was switched on immediately after the storm, providing lights and kitchen equipment so that the Red Cross could serve meals to the community.
Catholic Social Services (CSS) arrived Monday with bottles of water and boxes of food. CSS case workers were on the ground virtually daily, bringing more supplies, including blankets, toys for kids needing comfort, and emergency generators.
Tom Schik, director of social services for the western half of the diocese, reported that CSS is working with several families who have been displaced.
“We’re in the process of helping them find an apartment and get re-established in Sutton,” he said. “We’ll help them with a deposit and the first month’s rent, furniture, and things from the food pantry.”
Beaver Crossing was harder to get into, with roads completely closed down by debris and flooding. But CSS is on the ground there, too.
Curt Krueger, director of social services for the eastern half of the diocese, delivered emergency generators to Sutton and bottled water and food to Cordova the Monday after the storm.
When he was finally able to make it into Beaver Crossing, he checked in with the Red Cross and Salvation Army to make sure they knew CSS had generators and other supplies available to families in need.
“The Red Cross and Salvation Army are great in that initial response,” Krueger said. “CSS has a role in the long-term recovery.”
CSS intends to help with cash expenses as well as material goods like furniture, clothing and housewares, thanks to the generous contributions from people across the diocese. Plus, CSS has a team that can help both pastors tend to the emotional and spiritual well-being of people in the aftermath of this significant destruction.
Father Christopher Kubat, director of CSS, visited the town last weekend (Editor’s Note: see Father Kubat’s column, "Seedlings"). He had a chance to comfort the mother who once lived across the street from Sacred Heart Church and offer CSS assistance as they relocate, even though the family is not Catholic.
Both Father Holoubek and Father Current were impressed by how rapidly volunteers showed up to help put their towns back together again. Farmers arrived with tractors. Volunteers came from all around the area armed with work gloves, chain saws, rakes and a lot of good will.
“In two days we were cleaned up,” Father Holoubek said. “Power came on at the end of the second day. “
Things were slower in Beaver Crossing, but a multitude of volunteers rapidly cleared the streets so electrical companies could get to work. As of Monday morning, Beaver Crossing was still without power, despite multiple crews replacing power lines as quickly as possible.
The amount of help and the knowledge that everybody emerged from these tornados safely has gone a long way in supporting the emotional and spiritual health of the victims.
Father Current is particularly grateful to his brother priests who have offered advice, encouragement and other help in so many ways.
“You start to feel down, and then the phone rings,” he said.
In the long run, such natural disasters help people get things into perspective.
“It helps us come to the point where we see that material things can all be replaced, but our life and our faith are the most precious things we have,” Father Holoubek said.
Father Current agreed. “When things like this happen, it has an effect to make us better, and I think that we’ve seen that,” he said.
The needs in Sutton, Beaver Crossing and other communities affected by the tornado will continue long after the Red Cross and Salvation Army have left the area. The CSS teams appreciate any support offered by the people of the diocese, including financial and material donations.
Financial donations can be sent to Catholic Social Services, 2241 O Street Lincoln, 68510 or online at cssisus.org. Furniture, clothing, bedding, housewares, and non-perishable food, can be donated at CSS Gift & Thrift stores in Auburn, Hastings, Imperial and Lincoln.