After Disasters, Glenmary Missions' Care for Neighbors Is a Constant

Posted: 6/3/2011

Recovery effort after 2011 Mississippi tornadoes










Tornadoes and storms ripped through northeast Mississippi again in late April 2011, bringing death, injury, destruction and trauma—with the heaviest damage in Monroe and Chickasaw counties. The tornadoes claimed 14 residents' lives in Monroe and three in Chickasaw. Others saw their homes and businesses damaged or destroyed and their lives upended. And the long road to recovery began.

In the wake of this natural disaster—and several others that have recently struck rural Glenmary counties in three states—Glenmary missions and missioners, as well as Catholic Charities teams, have been among those consistently serving the people in need. Providing this assistance is both challenging and critical, because mission counties are remote and isolated and have limited economic resources. As in the past, the caring Catholic presence and help have made a lasting difference.

Tornadoes in Northeast Mississippi, 2011

One of the newest Catholic Charities staff members in the Jackson (Miss.) diocese is Barbara Marsh, a disaster area coordinator who is currently working in counties struck by the recent tornadoes. She's also a very active parishioner at Glenmary's Pontotoc mission. Catholic Charities' goal is to help victims get the wide range of assistance they need, from medical care, food, shelter, clothing, cleanup and psychological counseling to help with applying for assistance funding. And Barbara has been instrumental in facilitating this process.

"She emerged as a leader immediately after the disaster and has worked nonstop," says Michael Ann Oropeza, Catholic Charities' diocesan director of parish-based ministries. "Barbara has provided strong organizational skills and has worked with and overseen teams of AmeriCorps volunteers."

Barbara says she was offered the job partly because of her work as a Catholic Charities volunteer during last year's tornadoes. "Almost all the people (affected by the tornadoes) have spoken about their faith in God," she says. She has been especially moved by storm victims' unselfishness and caring for fellow victims.

A major key to Catholic Charities' effectiveness is its ability to partner with others in their efforts, including a range of community, religious and relief groups and especially Catholic parishes. "We're continually amazed by the hard work and generosity of the Glenmary missions," Michael Ann says. "They are always helpful and community-oriented."

AmeriCorps cleanup efforts after 2011 tornadoes in northeast MississippiIn Chickasaw County, for instance, Sister Liz Brown, longtime pastoral associate of Glenmary's Okolona mission and director of Okolona's Excel Community Center, invited Catholic Charities to use the Excel facility as a command post—probably for the next six months—and has provided housing for AmeriCorps volunteers. "We have significant connections with other local churches and community members," says Sister Liz. "And those local connections have helped as much as anything."

Sister Pat Hinton, pastoral associate of the Glenmary mission in Houston, contacted the town's other ministers to offer the mission's help and then informed Catholic Charities team about people whom she knew needed assistance. "We also opened our parish hall to an AmeriCorps team so they'd have a place to live," Sister Pat says.

Father Bob Dalton, a Glenmary senior member who lives in Houston, has ministered to local tornado victims and has visited people in the hospital. "I'm just following my pastor's instinct," he says. "A Glenmarian's parish is the whole county."

Tornadoes in Bertie County, N.C., 2011

Just a couple of weeks earlier and many states away, the Glenmary mission area of Bertie County, N.C., was also hit by devastating tornadoes. Brother Jack Henn, a member of the mission's pastoral team, says their first step after a disaster is checking on parishioners to make sure they are safe and to assist them in whatever ways needed. The next step is to use their connections with the larger community and other ministers to find out how the mission can help.

Brother Jack, pastor Father Chet Artysiewicz, and Brother Curt Kedley worked as a team to make these contacts. "One example," Brother Jack says, "is that we asked fire chiefs in the two most affected communities to determine the 10 most needy families in each area, and then we sent food gift cards for them. We continue to follow up with the chiefs."

This help was an outgrowth of the mission's strong involvement with the local ecumenical food pantry. Brother Jack says they were also able to use donations to Glenmary designated for victims of this disaster.

Meanwhile, Glenmary student Jason Muhlenkamp, then on a one-year assignment at the mission, worked on the cleanup effort with volunteers from a Christian relief organization.

"We are also Catholic Charities' contact persons in the county," says Brother Jack. "After a disaster, they call us first to get an update. Then they do a quick assessment, talk to other organizations and decide on the best ways to contribute." During the past months the agency has provided grief counseling, food cards, and cleanup funding. Jack adds that Catholic Charities and the Glenmary mission have a strong, ongoing relationship. "They've been a real blessing," he says.

"The Glenmary team are wonderful," says Stephanie Harrell, a regional director for Catholic Charities in the Raleigh, N.C., diocese. "They are the feet on the ground out there. I can always depend on them. They know the people and journey with them. And we just work together seamlessly."

Floods in Lewis County, Ky., 2010

Another kind of disaster struck Lewis County, Ky., in May and July 2010, when creek floods destroyed people's homes, forced others out of theirs, and disrupted resident's lives. Local church ministers, civic officials, community members, outside Catholic volunteer groups, and charitable organizations all worked together to help those in need. And Michele Bertot, Glenmary's mission leader in Vanceburg, and her husband Ted became the point persons for recovery efforts.

As treasurer of the ministerial association and welfare secretary for the local Salvation Army unit, Michele already had a key role in dealing with community members' everyday problems.

"What I and other ministers did right away was distribute Salvation Army ‘cleanout' kits to flood victims," Michele says. " It gave us a chance to talk to them and recommend applying for (federal) assistance." Meanwhile, Catholic mission members helped in many ways, including prayer, cleanup and meal preparation.

Her next step was an unprecedented one for her county on the far eastern edge of the Covington diocese. She contacted Bill Jones, director of the diocesan Catholic Charities office, about obtaining funds to assist victims. "What impressed me," Bill said at the time, "was that Michele was already working with a coalition and her application gave all the details. We told Catholic Charities USA that we absolutely trusted this person. So it was easy to secure a $10,000 grant for Lewis County." He also said he was "amazed at how efficiently the grant money was used."

Michele and Ted continued to visit, revisit and minister to people, as well as deciding who needed what help. She points out that a crucial part of her ministry was to sit with flood victims and let them talk. "I prayed with people, talked about loss and grief, and hopefully gave them some closure and hope."

Today Michele continues to be a catalyst for positive change: Because of Catholic Charities' experience last spring, Bill Jones plans to have a key-stakeholder meeting later in 2011 with Lewis and Mason County residents, with Michele as his key contact person. Topic: the first-ever expansion of selected Catholic Charities human services to Lewis County and nearby Mason County.

Tornadoes in Choctaw County, Miss., 2010

And finally, in April 2010, tornadoes struck hard in another part of northeast Mississippi that included Choctaw County, then home of Glenmary's Ackerman mission. Pastoral coordinator Sister Alies Therese says she immediately went to the most devastated areas to see the damage and minister to people. Also, she and fellow members of the local ministerial association shared information with one another.

"Some of the local church communities and first responders were already coming in. I called Catholic Charities because I knew they would provide both short- and long-term help," she says.

"When we pulled up," said Michael Ann Oropeza of Catholic Charities at the time, "Sister Alies was hammering a ‘Free Meals Here' sign in the front yard of the Baptist church where she and several other faith-based leaders had set up a community stop." Sister Alies immediately introduced Michael Ann to those she had been working with and then took the Catholic Charities representatives to see the damage and meet those who had survived.

"Sister Alies and our team prayed with the survivors and we started providing assistance," Michael Ann said last spring. "Sister Alies is there in the community every moment, helping with distribution of goods, holding a hand, searching for loved ones who have not been located—and amazingly all the while kind, patient and providing a sense of peace. The care and unceasing support from those like Sister Alies is overwhelming. She makes me proud to say I am Catholic."

Over a year later, Sister Alies says she is still following up with several families who lost children and suffered serious injuries. And she points out that Catholic Charities is also still involved in helping them through counseling and other means. "Catholic Charities see themselves as long-term responders," Sister Alies says. "That is their real gift. They've been very thoughtful with these families."

Catholic Presence Is a Constant

The disasters and the recovery efforts differ from place to place. But in Glenmary mission areas, the Catholic presence is a constant. The many people in need have learned they can always rely on the help and support of their fellow community members at the local Glenmary mission parishes. And they've also found out they can count on their areas' Catholic Charities teams to lend their experienced assistance.