June 10, 2011

Be Our Guest / Karen Dickinson

Lifelong memories of faith offer strong ties for former Joplin resident

Karen DickinsonIt is amazing how one catastrophic event can bring the faith of childhood crashing into the faith of adulthood.

On May 22, the church of my childhood was destroyed by an EF5 tornado.

St. Mary Church in Joplin, Mo., was the parish church of my family for more than 30 years. My siblings and I all received the sacraments at St. Mary Parish.

I was confirmed by Bishop Bernard Law, the bishop of the Diocese of Springfield-Cape Girardeau at the time. I was married to my husband, Doug, an Indianapolis native, at St. Mary Church.

We met at the University of Arkansas, 90 miles south of Joplin. Many people from Indianapolis made the journey down Interstate 70 and Interstate 44 to St. Mary Church for our wedding.

My last memory of the rectory was meeting with Msgr. John H. Westhues, my pastor, in his den on the day before my wedding and making the sacrament of reconciliation. I remember thinking how peaceful and moving that quiet time with my priest was before the bustle of the wedding.

St. Mary Parish built the foundation for who I am as an adult Catholic. I was actively involved in the youth choir. We caroled each Christmas at the Greenbriar Nursing Home across the street from the church. The nursing home, like St. Mary Church, was destroyed. Sadly, a great loss of life occurred there.

I attended CCD and participated in many Christmas pageants at St. Mary Parish.

Catholics are few and far between in Joplin, and I always felt a strong bond with the other children at St. Mary Parish who attended public school.

To this day, I am in contact with many of them although we are scattered across the country.

My brother became a priest for the Diocese of Tulsa and my mother, who attended Mass every Sunday at St. Mary Church even though she was not Catholic, later came into the full communion of the Church.

As an adult, I have made some Marian pilgrimages and developed a strong devotion to Mary. I have always found that not to be coincidental. St. Mary Parish has had a lasting effect on my family and me.

It would be hard to accept this horrific event if I did not have my faith—the faith that was nurtured at St. Mary Parish during my childhood.

Here I am as an adult, needing my faith to come to terms with this tragic event—trying to understand why the tornado formed near my childhood home, destroyed my neighborhood, proceeded to take out the school that my mother taught at and decimated many of my friend’s neighborhoods.

The tornado then headed down the street from my home, critically damaging St. John’s Medical Center, where I worked during my college summer breaks.

It also destroyed Cunningham Park, the park where I played and learned to swim.

The landscape of rolling Ozark hills that was once filled with century-old trees is now miles of desolate land. It has personally affected me.

We become so numb to horrific events until they affect us personally.

I see God in so many of the stories that I am hearing out of Joplin. People’s faith has not been shaken. The love and goodness of mankind is a bright light in Joplin.

What has brought the most comfort to me is that strong, beautiful cross outside St. Mary Church that is still standing as a beacon of hope to all.

(Karen Dickinson is a member of St. Luke the Evangelist Parish in Indianapolis.)

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