March 30, 2012

'It's about the needs of others'

Bishop Coyne commends St. Francis Xavier parishioners, assures archdiocese’s long-term commitment to tornado-ravaged area

Bishop Christopher J. Coyne and Father Steven Schaftlein greet parishioners as they leave Mass at St. Francis Xavier Church in Henryville on March 25. The bishop pledged the archdiocese’s long-term assistance to the parish and community as they rebuild from the destructive March 2 tornadoes. (Photo by Patricia Happel Cornwell)

Bishop Christopher J. Coyne and Father Steven Schaftlein greet parishioners as they leave Mass at St. Francis Xavier Church in Henryville on March 25. The bishop pledged the archdiocese’s long-term assistance to the parish and community as they rebuild from the destructive March 2 tornadoes. (Photo by Patricia Happel Cornwell) Click for a larger version.

By Patricia Happel Cornwell (Special to The Criterion)

HENRYVILLE—Beneath the tarp-covered roof of St. Francis Xavier Church, Bishop Christopher J. Coyne concelebrated Mass on March 25 with Father Steven Schaftlein, the parish’s pastor.

Plywood covered some windows, and a box-like supporting structure blocked the area beneath the church’s damaged roof. Orange work lamps provided lighting for the organist and cantor.

In his homily, Bishop Coyne, apostolic administrator, commended parishioners for actively demonstrating their Christian faith during the aftermath of the recent tornadoes. (Learn more about how you can help here)

“In this community in the past few weeks,” he said, “we’ve seen people step up and show others what it’s like to be a good Christian and a good Catholic. Jesus tells us over and over that we have to die to ourselves and live for others. It’s not about me. It’s about the needs of others.

“We can see the devastation when a tragedy like this occurs, but we can also see how God works. God works through the people around us, answering our prayers through the people in our community.”

The bishop pledged the archdiocese’s resources to help restore the parish and community “for as long as you need us,” and said, “thank you for showing [others] what it means to be Catholic.”

To date, the archdiocese has received nearly $300,000 in its tornado relief efforts.

Father Schaftlein, pastor of both St. Francis Xavier Parish in Henryville and St. Michael Parish in Charlestown, said that during the first 10 days after the disaster, St. Francis parishioners fed 5,000 people per day. Henryville’s population is only 1,900.

The parish provided food to victims and volunteers with help from the Clark County Sheriff’s Department, Little Caesar’s, Papa John’s Pizza, Taco Bell and individual donors.

Representatives of the Red Cross, Indiana Homeland Security, National Guard and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) converged on Henryville immediately after the disaster, and the archdiocesan Catholic Charities staff organized training sessions for volunteer case managers. The case managers from parishes throughout the archdiocese will stay in contact with assigned families to help them through the process of accessing available resources, and rebuilding their homes and lives.

Trudy Stephens of Marengo volunteered to conduct intake interviews for Catholic Charities in a trailer at the St. Francis Church parking lot.

“I just came because I could help,” she said.

Her words could be the anthem of thousands of volunteers who converged on the area following the March 2 tornadoes when 175-mile-per-hour winds flattened much of the small towns of Henryville, Marysville and Osgood.

“The first 10 days, thousands of people took off work and just stayed with us to help clean up,” Father Schaftlein said. “The town is almost ‘immaculate’ now compared to what it looked like at first. It’s amazing how quickly it is being cleaned up. We’re in the rebuilding mode already. A thousand people have already signed up for FEMA aid in this area.”

Although cleanup is under way, the town is still a scene of devastation. The first impression as a driver leaves Interstate 65 at Highway 160 is a sea of bright blue tarpaulins covering roofs and vehicles everywhere.

The first tornado to touch down in Henryville was an EF1 tornado with winds between 86 to 110 miles per hour. Half an hour later, a deadlier EF4 tornado, which packed 175 mile-per-hour winds, destroyed much of the town. Where homes and businesses once stood, there are piles of debris. Trees are decapitated. Vehicles are pocked with baseball-size hail damage, their windows blown out as if in a war zone.

Insurance adjusters and FEMA representatives arrived in the town on March 3, and most had completed their assessments and left by March 17. The deadline for applying to FEMA is May 8. People seeking aid at St. Francis Xavier Parish are now being referred to Catholic Charities.

At the St. Francis parking lot, trucks are filled with essentials—from soap and socks to shovels and food. Shelves were delivered on March 23 so supplies could be organized in the church basement. Donated goods are being stored at St. Francis and a nearby lumber warehouse because people whose homes were demolished have nowhere to keep large quantities of goods at one time.

“Traffic [of victims requesting aid] has dropped to about 10 percent of what it was right after the tornadoes. But the need continues. We want to be able to completely restock a family’s needs a house at a time,” Father Schaftlein said.

The parish will now begin sending out volunteer crews to help rebuild homes, a prospect that the pastor expects to go on for a year. He expects the number of out-of-town groups offering to help with reconstruction will also “ramp up” in April as weather becomes milder.

Nearly 100 Purdue University students were among the first volunteers to arrive to help with cleanup in Henryville and nearby Marysville. The students were from 20 countries, including China, India, Colombia and Brazil.

While such volunteers are a great help, “only the local people can manage the reconstruction properly,” Father Schaftlein said on March 25. “We need local people with experience as carpenters, plumbers, landscapers and other professionals to be project supervisors. An outside group can help, but it doesn’t have a sense of ownership.”

He noted that the Knights of Columbus are conducting a nationwide drive to collect donations of tools and compressors.

“The biggest thing is getting people to go for help,” Father Schaftlein said. “Rural people have that [attitude of] self-sufficiency. There is a sense of pride. They think, ‘Somebody else is worse off than me.’ But if you go on and get help, maybe you’ll be in a better position to help someone else the next time. You pay it forward.”

Henryville’s public schools were extensively damaged by the tornadoes, and students will finish the school year at borrowed facilities. Elementary students resumed classes on March 19 at the vacant Graceland School in New Albany, and high school students will return to classes on April 2 at Mid-America Science Park in Scottsburg. Tractor-trailer loads of school supplies have been donated by Staples Midwest Distribution Center in Terre Haute, Vigo County Schools and other organizations.

West Clark Community Schools officials expect Henryville Junior-Senior High School to be rebuilt by September.

A total of 65 tornadoes on March 2 and March 3 were confirmed by the National Weather Service. The twisters touched down in 10 states, and left 41 people dead in five states, including 15 in Indiana.

Father Schaftlein said that, weeks after the disaster, people are now starting to come to him for help with spiritual difficulties related to the shock of their losses.

After the March 25 Mass with Bishop Coyne, he told the congregation, “Part of the realization that’s starting to hit us is that things may not be the same as before. We may have to be in a different house. We’re moving toward normalcy, but it’s a new kind of normalcy. Like Jesus in the Gospel, we must die to some of our old ways and rise to new ways. And we will move forward and be a stronger community of deeper faith because of this.”

(Patricia Happel Cornwell is a freelance writer and member of St. Joseph Parish in Corydon. Information on how to volunteer is available at or at 317-236-1500 or 800-382-9836, ext. 1500. Checks made payable to Catholic Charities, Archdiocese of Indianapolis, with “tornado relief” on the memo line, may be mailed to Catholic Charities, Attention: Tornado Relief, 1400 N. Meridian St., Indianapolis, IN 46202.)

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