NASHVILLE, Tennessee — The Diocese of Nashville and the Catholic community are responding to the needs, both immediate and long-term, of those affected by deadly tornadoes that ripped across Middle Tennessee in the early hours of March 3, leaving at least 24 people dead.
Bishop J. Mark Spalding has visited the affected pastors and churches in Nashville and offered prayers of support for all those suffering from the trauma of the disaster.
He has received messages of support from Archbishop Jose H. Gomez of Los Angeles, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Archbishop Christophe Pierre, apostolic nuncio to the United States. “As the personal representative of the Holy Father in this country, I assure you of his prayers in this difficult situation,” the letter said.
Diocesan parishes and schools sprang into action after the storm. Holy Rosary Church in Donelson served as the site of a Red Cross emergency shelter, March 3, and a number of churches and schools were collecting supplies such as bottled water and baby formula for tornado victims.
The Knights of Columbus has been marshaling its members to donate money, materials and manpower to relief efforts. “In the coming days, we will offer the strength of unity of nearly 12,000 Knights across the state as we go to work to bring relief to this disaster,” State Deputy Michael McCusker wrote in a letter to local Knights.
He called charity “the first and foremost principle” of the fraternal order and said the Tennessee State Council is working in conjunction with the Nashville Diocese “to coordinate a statewide KofC charitable effort.”
The Catholic Pastoral Center in Nashville planned to host a Red Cross blood drive March 9.
The Catholic Schools Office is exploring how it might help Donelson Christian Academy, which was destroyed by the tornado and will be looking to relocate students to finish the school year.
Catholic Charities of Tennessee also is on the front lines of responding to the needs of tornado victims. “We have a balance between the work that doesn’t stop and the emergency work,” Judy Orr, the agency’s executive director, told the Tennessee Register, Nashville’s diocesan newspaper.
For example, Wendy Overlock, who oversees the Loaves and Fishes community meal program at Holy Name Church in East Nashville, managed a regularly scheduled March 4 meal service while also serving as the Catholic Charities emergency assistance coordinator, fielding calls from those in need, those who want to help, and communications with state emergency management officials.
“It’s a lot,” she said. “But we have a lot of helpers.”
The morning of March 4, Overlock and her team of volunteers made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to hand out to their guests in the hard-hit East Nashville neighborhood where Holy Name is located since the building had no power.
“We went back to how we started,” she said, which was the simple act of handing out sandwiches to the homeless 30 years ago.
Meanwhile, at the McGruder Family Resource Center in North Nashville, which is managed by Catholic Charities, volunteers from Gideon’s Army and Metro Nashville Public Schools, among others, showed up in droves to meet the immediate needs of people in the neighborhood.
Observing people who had lost homes or power load up supplies by the garbage bag and wagon load, McGruder director Alisha Haddock noted, “This is what happens when tragedy strikes, we come together.”
Even though the power was out at McGruder, volunteers worked in the kitchen normally used for the Catholic Charities Culinary Training Academy to heat up prepared food to serve anyone in need.
“The community knows they can count on us here,” Haddock said.
As Catholic Charities’ North Nashville response moves forward, Haddock said her staff will “go out in the community and put hands on the situation. There’s a lot of seniors who are unseen, and we want them to know they are being seen and helped.”
Catholic Charities is just beginning to map out a longer-term plan to help those suffering after the storm. With key staff members affected by the tornado themselves, and a long-planned major fundraising event scheduled for March 4, Orr was just beginning to formulate the organization’s relief plans on Thursday, March 5. “A thoughtful, organized approach will provide the most relief,” she said.
“The work of Catholic Charities is really rebuilding of lives after the emergency,” Orr said. “We anticipate a lot of people in need of counseling after the trauma of this event, the loss of life and homes, this could be a setback from which some people cannot recover.”
Catholic Charities of Tennessee has already received a $10,000 grant from Catholic Charities USA, which will be used to meet the immediate needs of those affected, most likely in the form of gift cards for groceries and supplies.
“Our staff members have the protocols in place to assess the needs and connect people with the resources they need,” Orr said.
Catholic Charities has received more than $9,000 in additional donations from those in Tennessee and surrounding states. The Diocese of Nashville has so far received monetary donations of over $24,000 to help parishes and people affected by the tornado.
The grant money, and additional donations, could be used to beef up the Catholic Charities counseling staff, which Orr anticipates will be greatly needed. “People will have needs beyond ‘I have a hole in my roof’ to ‘I have a hole in my heart,'” she said.
It’s likely that many people in Putnam County, which suffered the greatest loss of life from the tornadoes, will have holes in their hearts for some time to come. At least 18 deaths have been reported by officials in Putnam County, about 80 miles east of Nashville along Interstate 40.
Laurence is a staff writer at the Tennessee Register, newspaper of the Diocese of Nashville. Managing editor Andy Telli contributed to this report.
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