March 9, 2012

Members of Henryville parish spared by tornado are reaching out to help

Members of the Indiana National Guard and other rescue workers haul donated ice to a refrigerated truck parked beside St. Francis Xavier Church in Henryville on March 3. The previous day, a tornado ravaged the southern Indiana town. Since the church sustained relatively little damage, it quickly became a place to collect and distribute donated material goods to aid people affected by the storm. (Photo by Sean Gallagher)

Members of the Indiana National Guard and other rescue workers haul donated ice to a refrigerated truck parked beside St. Francis Xavier Church in Henryville on March 3. The previous day, a tornado ravaged the southern Indiana town. Since the church sustained relatively little damage, it quickly became a place to collect and distribute donated material goods to aid people affected by the storm. (Photo by Sean Gallagher) Click for a larger version.

By Sean Gallagher

HENRYVILLE—At about 3:15 p.m. on March 2, Tom Nolot was leading a handful of volunteers to prepare for a Lenten fish fry in the basement of St. Francis Xavier Church.

He knew that severe storms were in the area so he stepped out into the church parking lot to see what might be coming.

Nolot immediately saw a tornado bearing down on Henryville from the west. He went back into the basement and told the volunteers in the kitchen, which faces west, to go into the adjacent dining room.

They and other townspeople huddled together for safety.

"We got down against the wall," Nolot said. "And just as soon as we got there, we hear this big boom."

Thirty seconds later, after the tornado had passed, he went back into the kitchen. A door leading from the kitchen to the outside and its frame had been blown in, and a large freezer had been moved across the floor.

"The kitchen at that point was pretty much a disaster," Nolot said.

So were much of the rest of Henryville and other towns and rural areas across southern Indiana. The tornadoes that swept across the state on March 2 carved a heartbreaking trail of death and destruction.

(Related: Archdiocesan Catholics prepare to give long-term aid to tornado victims | Photo Gallery | Find out how you can help the victims)

By March 5, there were 13 confirmed people who died during the tornadoes, including a 15-month-old girl who was found alive in a field and later died at a hospital.

According to state officials, about 100 homes and 30 businesses were also damaged or destroyed.

In Henryville, the town's high school and elementary school, a half block from St. Francis Xavier Parish, were torn apart. Houses and businesses close to the parish were also severely damaged.

Nolot saw what was left of the high school through the damaged doorway in the church's basement.

"The part of the school that we could normally see was essentially gone," he said. "It was just a bunch of tree trunks and debris between us and where the school was. I'd seen [tornado damage] on TV, but I just never thought that I'd witness it myself. It was overwhelming."

"It's a difficult thing to see," said Father Steven Schaftlein, the parish's pastor. "[But] the people here have faith and hope."

Aside from the damage to the kitchen and some damage to the roof, St. Francis Xavier Church came through the tornado largely unscathed.

Because of that, it soon became a hub in the town for collecting and distributing food, blankets and clothing for people affected by the tornado.

Some 24 hours after Nolot and his fellow volunteers were preparing for a fish fry at their New Albany Deanery faith community, the parish was swarming with members of the Indiana National Guard, personnel from the Clark County Sheriff's Office, and other rescue workers and volunteers.

Later that night, the basement was filled with material items and donations started to be moved into the church upstairs.

According to Jane Crady, coordinator of disaster preparedness and response for Catholic Charities in the archdiocese, the entire church was filled to capacity with donations by March 5.

Nolot and his wife, Joyce, returned to fry the 90 pounds of fish they had thawed, serving it to rescue workers and people in need.

While he was happy that his parish could help so many people, Tom Nolot was also glad that it could be used for its primary purpose—worship.

"The thing that I'm happiest about is that we've got the church cleaned up, and we're going to have Mass in the morning," he said.

Joyce Nolot was grateful that only one person in Henryville died, and that a relatively few amount of people were injured, including none at the town's schools. A day later, that thankfulness extended to the generosity of townspeople and others who had come there to help.

"It's a miracle. It is," she said. "Nobody was hurt [at the school]. Everybody is coming out to help. The generosity is just unbelievable."

Father Schaftlein stood with the Nolots in the parish parking lot a day after the tornado, and marveled at the generosity of his parishioners and other people in the area.

"This is why we pray on a daily basis— so that we're ready to be able to respond to something like this in a prayerful way," Father Schaftlein said. "And that's what I see happening … with all the parishioners and others in the community."

And he expects to see it happen around the clock for the foreseeable future.

"Whatever we need to do," Father Schaftlein said. "That's what we're here for. We'll be 24/7 for at least a few weeks."

An article in the Louisville Courier-Journal reported on Father Schaftlein's homily delivered during the parish's usual 9 a.m. Mass on March 4.

At that time, he said that the parish was "spared to be a symbol of hope and also to walk the talk. We're praying here. That's our first work. But underneath is the food, the clothing, that will help sustain the community in the months ahead."

The parish has helped sustain parishioner Zach Staples as he has grown up in Henryville. A senior at Henryville High School, he was at his home three miles north of the town when the tornadoes struck after he and his fellow students were dismissed early on March 2 because of the storms.

On March 3, he helped a cousin clean up his damaged home in Henryville and then visited his parish, which he was happy to see offering assistance.

"I'm glad that it can be used for anything—for sanctuary, for a place of worship, for a fish fry, which is what we were supposed to have yesterday," said Zach. "Only now it's turned into a place where we drop off water, and as a place where people can come and get some food and help."

While coping with the fact that much of the town that he had grown up in is gone, Zach still held on to his faith in God.

"I don't really blame him for any of this," Zach said. "It could happen to anybody. It wasn't God that did this. It was just Mother Nature. It just happens."

What also happened in Henryville in the wake of the tornado was an outpouring of generosity centered on St. Francis Xavier Parish, something that impressed Lyndi Hughbanks, a community corrections official for the Clark County Sheriff's Office, who was sorting donations as a volunteer at the parish on March 3.

"It's been very heartwarming," she said. "It just goes to show that God is kind of the center of everything. And this has become the center of what people need." †

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