Jim Graves is a Catholic writer and editor living in Newport Beach, California. He previously served as Managing Editor for the Diocese of Orange Bulletin, the official newspaper of the Diocese of Orange, California. His work has appeared in the National Catholic Register, Our Sunday Visitor, Cal Catholic Daily and Catholic World Report.
When the story of the COVID-19 pandemic is told to future generations, it will include numerous individual stories of ways faithful Catholic clergy and laity sprung to action to alleviate the suffering of those adversely affected. I looked back at some past tragedies that have struck the U.S. in the past few decades to see the positive ways in which Catholics responded.
On morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Father Stephen McGraw, a newly ordained priest for the Diocese of Arlington, was driving to Arlington National Cemetery for a graveside service. He found himself in standstill traffic in front of the Pentagon, which is near the cemetery. He had not been listening to the news, and was unaware that al-Qaeda hijackers had commandeered airplanes and flown them into the World Trade Center towers in New York City. His only concern at the moment was that he’d be late for the service.
At 9:43 a.m., he heard and felt the rush of a jet aircraft flying in low over the tops of the cars on the roadway, and looked to his right and saw a large aircraft “disappear” into the Pentagon. His thoughts flashed back to the 1982 crash of Air Florida Flight 90 into the 14th Street Bridge over Washington’s Potomac River, and initially assumed this was another such large scale accident.
As the cars were not moving, he easily exited his vehicle, bringing his stole, oils for anointing and his “green book” of prayers for the sick and dying. As he reached the Pentagon lawn, injured victims were being brought out for treatment. He went from one victim to another, offering the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick to Catholics; to non-Catholics, he’d simply say, “Jesus is with you.”
He recalled one woman who was badly burned pleading with rescuers to remove her shoe which was causing her pain. Father removed the shoe, and she said, “Tell my mother and father that I love them.” She later died.
Father McGraw said, “It was an overwhelming experience of God’s providence. He used a priest, which happened to be me, to be a sign of his presence in the midst of tragedy and chaos.”
He continued, “It was like being present at Calvary: the innocent Victim, His terrible suffering and the terrible sin against God. It was the power of the Cross, bringing good out of terrible suffering.”
In 2019, historic levels of flooding in the Missouri and Mississippi River basins led to loss of life and billions of dollars in damage. Thousands of homes and businesses were flooded and large swaths of farmland were covered with water resulting in huge losses of livestock and harvests. Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts noted there was “widespread devastation” in his state with 85% of its counties declaring emergencies and 20% of its roads affected.
Priests and people in the dioceses affected immediately went into action to help victims. Father Dan Siepker, pastor of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary Church in Glenwood, Iowa, a Des Moines parish about 40 miles up the Missouri River, saw families in the parish displaced and many homes and farmlands nearby the parish underwater. People in his parish donated fresh water to provide to victims; the parish served as a site to serve meals. Father Siepker noted that the outreach provided by parishioners as well as those outside the diocese was “tremendous.” He commented, “It demonstrates how God is at work in our world.”
In 2018, a series of wildfires struck California, causing much destruction and loss of life, including the wiping out of the small Northern California community of Paradise. Forty thousand people who lived in and around Paradise were forced to evacuate. Eighty percent of the homes in the area had been destroyed, along with hundreds of businesses. Eighty-five residents perished.
Nearby parishes jumped into action to help. St. John the Baptist Parish in Chico, for example, was the site of a Parish Recovery Assistance Center set up by the St. Vincent de Paul Society. Fire victims had the opportunity to receive immediate assistance including gift and gas cards, as well as longer term assistance in navigating the many recovery services available to them through private and public agencies.
Father Michael Ritter, pastor of St. John the Baptist Parish, helped recruit volunteers at his parish to distribute supplies, offer counseling and direct people to temporary housing. Some of his parishioners lost their homes in the fires; other parishioners stepped up to offer them shelter in their own homes. While it took a long time for the shock to wear off and the realization that many people’s homes and businesses were destroyed, Father was impressed that so many stepped up to offer help. He said, “The outpouring of concern has been something wonderful amidst this disaster.”
In 2018, Hurricane Michael, a Category 4 storm with winds of up to 155 mph and heavy rains, destroyed buildings, downed trees and power lines and was blamed for 45 deaths. The hurricane first made landfall on the Florida Panhandle, cutting a 20-mile wide path between Mexico Beach on the eastern side and Panama City to the west, and making its way up the East Coast.
In the aftermath of the storm, Catholic Charities of Northwest Florida went to work helping the victims, Executive Director Matthew Knee reported, distributing such supplies as water and food, clean-up supplies and generators and baby items, through four different parish sites
St. Dominic Parish in Panama City was the largest distribution site. Father Michael Nixon, pastor, was “right in the thick of it” when the storm hit. Father opted not to evacuate, instead staying on-site with his associate pastor, a visiting seminarian and his dog. He said, “It was loud. I’ll never forget the sound of our carport being torn apart and thrown hundreds of yards away.”
As the storm raged, the trio read Scripture and sang praise songs on the guitar, Father recalled, because “if we live or die, we’re His.”
The morning after, Father walked outside to discover the community had been devastated. He said, “It was like a nuclear bomb went off. Buildings were leveled, and it seemed like every other tree had fallen down or tossed on top of buildings.”
St. Dominic’s parish hall was “totally destroyed,” and the roof of the religious education building gone. Much of the rectory roof was gone, too, making it unlivable. The church building survived best, losing only some roof shingles and one of its stained glass windows.
But help quickly arrived. Father Nixon noted, “The day after the storm, an 18-wheeler pulled up filled with water.” The parish was soon up and running serving hot meals to victims.
Nearby parishes St. John the Evangelist, also in Panama City, and St. Joseph in Port Saint Joe were used as sites to distribute supplies; St. John’s also became a hub for emergency medical services.
“We’d been through many hurricanes before, but we never saw one with this much damage,” Knee said. “We did all we could to help as many people as possible.”