By Tom Dermody
Catholic News Service
WASHINGTON, Ill. (CNS) — Father Stephen Willard told parishioners who packed St. Patrick Church a week after a powerful tornado devastated this community that "we’ll triumph through our sorrows" and "prove to the world that we are strong in Christ Jesus."
"The Lord will always raise us up," said Father Willard.
Prior to beginning the 11 a.m. Mass Nov. 24, Father Willard exposed the Blessed Sacrament on the altar and knelt along with the assembly to prayerfully mark the moment the tornado struck the previous Sunday, destroying 1,000 homes in the community — including those of at least 130 parish families. One person was killed and more than 100 were injured.
"Tears can flow. It’s OK," said Father Willard, who asked God for the gifts of peace, healing, and consolation. "The Lord is here with us with us," he assured the parish. "He will always be with us."
For Mary Stickelmaier, whose family of seven was displaced by the storm, the tears were her first in a week of shock and recovery.
"When he exposed Jesus, it was the first time I was able to mourn the things I’d lost," said Stickelmaier. She also used the time to again express gratitude to God for saving her family. They now reside in a rented home in nearby Peoria.
"We’re so blessed to be here," said Stickelmaier, recalling how the fast-moving storm hit just seconds after the family had found safety in their basement.
In his homily, Father Willard’s voice broke as he described the response to the disaster from the area and around the country. Catholics throughout the Diocese of Peoria took up a second collection at Masses on Nov. 23-24 for relief not only in Washington and area communities but in other regions hit hard by tornadoes Nov. 17, including the village of Gifford in northeast Champaign County.
In Washington, the gymnasium of St. Patrick’s School is serving as a relief station. It quickly filled the week after the tornado with donated food, clothing, and supplies. On Sunday, the parish announced it could no longer accept clothing donations because of lack of space.
"Please take these things," Father Willard told needy families at Sunday’s Masses. "People want to help. It’s amazing what they’ve done. As a pastor, I’m very humbled."
Among those picking up essentials such as toiletries and detergent was Jennifer Mendoza, who was in Indianapolis with her daughter Liv when the tornado struck. Her husband and son Madden were at home, and survived the tornado in the basement.
"Our home is gone," said Jennifer. The Mendozas are now staying with friends, but Sunday’s gathering of her parish family "means everything to me," she told The Catholic Post, newspaper of the Diocese of Peoria.
"I’ve got a million and one things to do, but I don’t want to leave here," said Jennifer, citing the spiritual and emotional support her family received in addition to the supplies.
Mary Venegoni, who is now living with her brother Tony in Morton after her home was badly damaged, echoed those sentiments.
"It means everything to come to Mass," said Venegoni, who frequently wiped tears during the liturgy. "I knew I’d struggle," she said. "But there’s no other place to be right now — this was the place I need to be."
For Father Willard, the prayerful scene at St. Patrick Church was like heaven.
"We’re not going to have our possessions with us" in heaven, he observed. "We’re going to only have Jesus Christ, and that’s all we need." While parish families will be "scattered around for a while, this is our home," he said of the church, which was not damaged in the storm.
Father Willard said the disaster has given the community an opportunity "to show our world, our country, what it means to have Christ in the center of our lives." He urged them to evangelize even through their time of struggle.
"Let us go out in the world and prove to our world that we are strong in Christ Jesus," said Father Willard, who also thanked first responders, those who are continuing with the relief effort, and parish staff for their extra work. "Live out the Gospel. Love one another, and serve people."
He ended his homily by quoting a favorite hymn, "O God Beyond all Praising," selected as the closing song for that Sunday’s Mass: "We will triumph through our sorrows and rise to bless you still." The assembly responded with applause.
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Dermody is editor of The Catholic Post, newspaper of the Diocese of Peoria, Ill
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