Simon Salinas heard that a tornado had destroyed his parish church, and knew he had to help. He was with his sister and her critically ill father-in-law in her home  during the storm, and they hunkered down in the house hallway and prayed.

After the tornado passed, he found out from another sister that the church had been destroyed. About 3 hours after the tornado, he got out to the church in the dark.

Arriving to the parish, he found the driveway surrounded with trees. He saw four cars in the parking lot and worried someone might be inside under the rubble. He was worried about their safety as he traversed downed power lines to look for survivors.

45 people had been attending a dinner for graduating seniors at St John the Evangelist in Emory, Texas. However, they had already been evacuated.

When he found out they were all safe, his thoughts moved to the Eucharist. He said his motivation came from his experience, “God has never abandoned me in my life and we as Catholic Christians, if we truly believe that God exists there, I didn’t want to abandon him. I wanted to at least search for him and that’s just what I did.”

So, with the light from a local guy named Angel, they searched the ruins. He dug past blocks of concrete and bricks. When he was about to give up he got a glimmer, meaning there was shiny metal underneath. When he uncovered the tabernacle, he was surprised it was unscathed.

Some hosts had fallen on the ground so they picked them up reverently despite the rain. He found every piece he could and covered them in a white cloth. This experience made him exclaim, “My eyes have seen the true beauty of God.”

Salinas commented in reference to finding the tabernacle, “I know a tornado might have taken our church but God still exists in our Church no matter what. He truly is alive and reigns, he reigns in Rains county,” the county where Emory is located.

He continued pointing to the road in front of the parish, “When I come across this road here, I always do the sign of the cross because I know Jesus is here, Jesus is always here in the tabernacle; so, I knew Jesus was still here [after the tornado] and if someone didn’t take him, I at least wanted to search and find him and keep him out of the weather.”

The whole experience made him feel like he was living a dream. He felt like the experience answered his prayers for his sister’s father-in-law. After finding the tabernacle, Simon placed it temporarily in the sick man’s room overnight before giving it to the parish priest. Ever since then, he’s started eating again and recovered from the brink of death.

Salinas is not alone: His whole parish has rallied in faith after the Church was destroyed April 29.

Monica Hughes, the youth director, was running the dinner in the church and got a call warning her, so she ushered everyone into a hallway, only to have the tornado blast through 30 seconds later.

She prayed with students as her husband held the door shut against the storm with all his might while watching the roof rip off. As she and others protected the teenagers, she said, “I felt [Jesus] doing the same thing above us and I heard him telling me ‘it’s OK, I’ve got you.’”

Salinas mentioned that their protection was later referred to by locals as “the miracle of the Passover” as the destruction passed over them, destroying the parish buildings on both sides but sparing that hallway.

The next day, they held Mass in the parish parking lot with 200 people attending. They offered it in thanksgiving that nobody was seriously injured.

Statue of Mary from St John the Evangelist in Emory, Texas. (Credit: Diocese of Tyler.)
Statue of Mary from St John the Evangelist in Emory, Texas. (Credit: Diocese of Tyler.)

Sherry Madalich, a ten-year parishioner, was surprised that Mass resumed so quickly, “I didn’t think there was any way that they were going to hold Mass today.”

She was in the church the night before when it was destroyed. These experiences led her to realize, “The people are still the same, the building is not,” and it is really people who matter for a parish.

The pastor, Father Victor Hernandez, was over an hour away at another event but hearing sirens on his way home said, “I heard the sirens go off and I wanted to be with my community.”

Taking things in stride, and in God’s plans, Hernandez said, “We are going to have a new building and church, which was not in our plans. We are going to move bigger and faster.”

The same storms had 7 tornadoes that killed at least 20 people so it was almost miraculous that while destroying the church building, nobody was seriously harmed. It blew out both ends of the parish building and the hallway people hid in was really the only thing left standing.

The parish had a beautiful statue of Mary that remained unharmed so they stood her up atop the rubble to show how she has more power than the EF3 tornado, which had winds from 135-165 miles per hour.

Sometimes it takes a disaster to show the strength of our faith but we should have the same faith every day, knowing that Jesus is present in the Eucharist and will protect us as these parishioners experienced.

The diocese set up a webpage for those wanting to donate to help with the parish rebuilding.