Catholics turn to prayer, action in wake of deadly tornadoes’ death and destruction across U.S.

By The Message staff and OSV News

Catholics turned to prayer and then action in the wake of tornadoes that carved a deadly path of destruction through the United States March 31-April 2, killing at least 33, injuring dozens and devastating thousands of homes and businesses.

Father Suresh Bakka, Administrator of St. Mary Parish in Sullivan and St. Joan of Arc Parish in Jasonville, provided The Message with this photo taken shortly after an EF3 tornado tore across Sullivan County March 31. Photo courtesy of Father Suresh Bakka

In Sullivan County, Indiana, on the north end of the Diocese of Evansville, three people died March 31 after an EF3 tornado packing whirling winds up to 165 mph cut a swath through the town of Sullivan and destroyed hundreds of homes and buildings. 

At press time, The Message had learned that St. Mary Parish in Sullivan and St. Joan of Arc Parish in Jasonville suffered no damage from the severe storms, although some St. Mary parishioners’ homes suffered damage – apparently none catastrophic. 

St. Mary parishioners and Administrator Father Suresh Bakka turned out April 3 to staff the weekly kitchen and food pantry, cooking for the community and distributing food to those impacted by the severe weather. Parishioners tell The Message that St. Mary’s kitchen and food pantry are the only regular ministries in operation after the storm because the other, Our Father’s Arms, suffered significant damage. 

Father Suresh Bakka and St. Mary parishioner/volunteer Rick May grill hamburgers April 3 for serving to attendees of the St. Mary Community kitchen, which usually serves around 300 hot meals every Monday evening. Photo by Michelle May, special to The Message

As of April 3, the National Weather Service counted 100 tornadoes in 11 states: Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Maryland, Michigan, Mississippi, Tennessee and Wisconsin.

At Our Lady of the Greenwood Parish in Greenwood, Indiana, a parish staff member told OSV News a tornado in nearby Whiteland had destroyed several parishioners' homes. The parish is "coming up with a plan" that will combine fundraisers and donated labor to assist the families, she said.

Father Suresh Bakka provided The Message with this panoramic photo of some of the damage from the EF3 tornado, which packed winds up to 165 mph. Photo courtesy of Father Suresh Bakka

As the storm system moved east, tornadoes touched down April 2 in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, as well as Delaware, where one person was killed following a house collapse in Sussex County.

St. Mary parishioners Tara Swick and Nesha Lankford hand out groceries April 3 at the parish’s weekly food pantry. Due to severe damage suffered by the Our Father’s Arms pantry in the area, St. Mary’s is the only pantry operating in Sullivan County in the immediate wake of the March 31 tornado and severe storms that ravaged the area.
Photo by Michelle May, special to The Message

Sean McLaughlin, safe environment coordinator for the Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy of Philadelphia, took refuge with his wife and two children in the basement of their Riverton, New Jersey, home, within a mile of one tornado.

"The wind was unlike anything I have ever heard," McLaughlin told OSV News, adding that his home was not damaged, but a large number of trees were downed throughout the area.

In the wake of the disaster, clergy are called to "offer the embrace of the Father," said Father Patrick Friend, chaplain and spiritual guidance counselor at Catholic High School for Boys in Little Rock, Arkansas, who visited the ruined home of two students April 1.

"There's nothing you can say; but when a priest shows up in a moment of crisis, it creates a space where people can be vulnerable and grieve," he said. "You don't have to have the right words. You're bringing the physical presence of the Lord. And that's something I'll be thinking about on Holy Thursday."

People walk through all that remains of homes and buildings destroyed by the March 31 tornado in Sullivan County. Some debris is lodged high in the remaining limbs of a large tree. Photo courtesy of Father Suresh Bakka