Storm claims roof of St. Joseph Church, Vanderburgh County

By Tim Lilley

The Message editor

Undamaged trees surround St. Joseph Church in Vanderburgh County, which lost its roof to a severe storm that moved through the area March 3. Don Werner shot this photo a short time after the storm passed. Photos by Don Werner, special to The Message

The National Weather Service confirmed March 7 that an EF1 tornado was responsible for lifting the roof off St. Joseph Church in Vanderburgh County, snapping the entire roof into two large pieces and dropping them in two different locations – one of them the driveway of a longtime parishioner.

A survey team from the NWS office in Paducah, Kentucky, visited St. Joseph Parish March 7 for a storm assessment as part of their work across southwestern Indiana and western Kentucky.

Diocese of Evansville officials have been in contact with pastors and other staff members at parishes across our 12 counties, and it appears as though St. Joseph Church is the only facility that sustained significant damage during the midday-Friday weather havoc, which generally moved from south to north across southwestern Indiana.

A large portion of the roof from St. Joseph Church in Vanderburgh County landed in the driveway of church neighbors and parishioners Harry and Madonna Lincoln.

NWS staff also reported that sensors at Evansville Regional Airport detected the lowest barometric pressure ever recorded in this area – 976 millibars, or 28.82 inches. According to the Southeast Coastal Ocean Observing Regional Association website, a pressure reading of 976 millibars is found in a category 2 hurricane. Pressure for cat 2 storms can range from 965 to 979 millibars, or 28.5 to 28.91 inches. Local NWS records date to 1897.

Father Gene Schroeder, pastor of St. Joseph Parish, told The Message that a funeral Mass had just been finished when the worst of the weather began moving toward the parish.

One of two large portions of the roof from St. Joseph Church in Vanderburgh County landed just below the church.

He said, “We had just finished a funeral for one of parishioners, and the family and friends were in the school cafeteria enjoying a lunch prepared by members of our parish. There were numerous weather alerts culminating in a call for everyone in the school to head to a safe place. (Principal Nathan Winstead) and our school staff did a really great job getting our kids to their safe place. And the students did a great job as well. They have a lot of training drills for just such occasions, and everyone responded well to this. I couldn’t be prouder of them.”

Father Gene said that shortly after the worst of the storm passed, Winstead told him there was “some damage done to the church roof.”

He said, “I went to get a look for myself, and that is when I noticed that the whole roof had been torn off the church.  Our parish secretary, Julie Kempf, actually witnessed the roof being lifted from the church and smashed in half before being tossed on the ground next to the church.  We discovered that another big section of the roof landed on the garage of one of our neighbors, St. Joseph parishioners) Harry and Madonna Lincoln.” The Lincolns’ garage suffered some damage from the debris, but their home was pretty much unscathed.

One of two large pieces of the roof from St. Joseph Church in Vanderburgh County landed adjacent to – but did not significantly damage – the stone marker in front of the church.

Father Gene continued, “I don’t think the actual incident lasted that long. From what we observed, it was probably some strong straight winds that just happened to be centered over the church. It makes sense since that was the tallest building. Trees that were in the cemetery right next to the church were not destroyed and suffered no damage. The school suffered no damage, and the same thing is true of the rectory garage and the parish office, which sits just east of the church.”

The parish held its scheduled Lenten fish fry just a few hours after the storm passed, but made it a drive-through-only affair. The local community turned out in a big way; the parish prepared and delivered approximately 1,000 meals to a drive-through line that, at one point, extended pretty much all the way to Indiana State Route 65. Father Gene celebrated weekend Masses in the school gymnasium.

He added, “As far as damage to the interior of the church, there were some small holes in the plaster ceiling – probably from some bricks that got tossed around. Other than that, there was no damage inside.  Obviously, one of our main concerns is making sure the church building is structurally sound. We think it is, but we are having some structural engineer check it out.  

He explained that workers were scheduled to begin work March 7 on the installation of a temporary cover to protect the interior from water damage. The road in front of the church is expected to be reopened by the time this issue of The Message reaches our readers. Its reopening was dependent upon removal of debris and power lines downed by the freak winds. 

Father Gene said the parish and school families still have full access to the school, so classes and other activities will continue there. Father Gene celebrated weekend Masses in the school gym March 4-5, and plans are for Masses to continue in the gym until further notice.

A message from Father Gene