MIDLAND, Michigan — Midland and the surrounding areas of Sanford and Edenville were already suffering from the effects of COVID-19 when another catastrophe struck May 19.
Although the mid-Michigan communities are no strangers to flooding, the historic breach of the Edenville and Sanford dams caused the worst flash flood in more than a century, forcing more than 10,000 people to evacuate their homes.
In response to the devastation, the area’s Catholic parishes, which are part of the Diocese of Saginaw, say they’ve witnessed — and been a part of — a community recovery effort that has seen parishioners and citizens alike relying on one another for support, from food assistance to disaster cleanup to spiritual support.
“Individuals are helping individuals,” said Father Daniel Fox, pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish, which includes St. Agnes Church in Sanford and St. Anne Church in Edenville.
Fox said many parishioners were hit hard by the flooding, and some were displaced from their homes, but other parishioners with means to help have risen to the occasion.
Some have volunteered their time daily to helping clean up downtown Sanford, even those who have been personally affected by the devastation, Fox said. Others have donated financial resources, helping the parish give away tens of thousands of dollars in relief aid.
“It isn’t necessarily coming from wealthy people, but from people who are just struck by the devastation,” Fox told the Detroit Catholic, the online news outlet of the Archdiocese of Detroit, a neighboring diocese to Saginaw. “It is actually bringing some people together in solidarity because there is nothing like affliction that will gravitate people toward one another.”
Our Lady of Grace also offered its parish grounds as a site to collect some of the refuse that littered the streets in the wake of the flooding. Until recently, the church property had several huge bins filled with debris.
“It has kind of compromised the beauty of the church, but it is a good compromise,” Fox said.
The parish also set up a task force to reach out to every parish household to find out what they needed, Fox said. Although the task force wasn’t able to reach everyone — likely because of so many people being displaced, the task force connected with a few hundred, Fox said.
One parishioner, a licensed counselor, is even working to set up a grief support group for those who have experienced loss, Fox added.
A month after the initial flooding, relief efforts are ongoing, and the needs haven’t disappeared. Many families have yet to see their homes restored or are still in need of food assistance. Some are still living out of hotels or other temporary housing without basic cooking utensils or stoves.
Local parishes have been coordinating with charities such as the United Way, Midland’s Open Door and the Salvation Army to make sure families are fed. Even as far away as Detroit, Catholic Charities of Southeast Michigan stepped up to send a pallet of food including soup, cereal and evaporated milk to stock emergency food pantries.
Help also has poured in from parishes not directly impacted by the flooding. St. Gabriel Parish in Auburn, about a 20-minute drive from the devastation, has emptied its food pantry to help those suffering.
“Our food pantry is literally run by the parishioners; they supply it,” said Kim Grant, office administrator at St. Gabriel. “They either contribute money or they contribute actual groceries. We were coming out of the pandemic with everything shut down, and we had an extraordinary number of people who were without jobs and needed food, and then the flood hit. ”
The need for food has remained high, even as people have continued to generously donate.
All three of Midland’s Catholic parishes — Blessed Sacrament, Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. Brigid — have gone out of their way to seek out those who need help, rather than waiting for people to ask.
“Our high schoolers were supposed to go on a mission trip this summer, but it was canceled because of COVID-19,” said Kristyn Russell, coordinator of communication and technology at Blessed Sacrament. “Instead, they were hauling stuff out (of flooded homes). They were the ones who were cleaning out the homes and doing the mission work in their own back yard. They were able to be here, present to their own community.”
Russell said local churches and organizations provided more than 6,000 lunches to flood victims in the first two weeks after the devastation. And starting in mid-July, Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Parish will host a food truck open to anyone who needs it, said Cathy Converse, the parish’s pastoral associate.
“No one wants to see the devastation of the flood, but it was astounding to see the community come together and lift up those who were affected by it,” Russell said. “The church is here to help in whatever way we can. That is what the body of Christ is here for: to be Jesus’ hands and feet.”
Both St. Brigid and Blessed Sacrament have proudly watched as their youth groups have pivoted and volunteered their time cleaning up neighborhoods, providing help with landscaping, drywalling basements and other cleanup efforts.
While churches and parishioners continue to offer material help and physical labor, they also remain a safe haven for spiritual comfort, said Father Andrew Booms, St. Brigid’s pastor. Within six days of the flooding, some of the restrictions on public Masses were lifted, and he offered the church as a place where people could pray and find refuge.
The impact of the flood will be felt in the community for years, and the work is not yet done. Still, Midland’s Catholics continue to count their blessings, Booms said.
“People recognize that we sink or rise together,” Booms said. “Spiritually, they’re just hungry, and thankfully with the relaxing of the ban on public Masses, we have been able to, in creative ways, help return people to the Eucharist.”
Patti is a news reporter on the staff of the Detroit Catholic, the online news outlet of the Archdiocese of Detroit.