NEW YORK – For the second straight Christmas, parishioners of Resurrection Catholic Church in Dawson Springs, Kentucky, will celebrate Mass in a decidedly non-traditional setting – a 20-by-20 foot steel shed that exists at the end of a paved walkway in a parishioner’s backyard.

The shed, formerly a weight room, was converted into a worship space after the church building was destroyed by deadly tornadoes that swept across Kentucky on Dec. 10, 2021. Dawson Springs was one of the hardest hit communities, and like others, still has a lot of rebuilding left to do.

The building used for the former Resurrection Parish was destroyed in the December, 2021, Kentucky storm, so the community assembled in a new place — a 20-by-20-foot steel shed that days earlier was a weight room. (Credit: John Lavenburg/Crux)

Crux was there on Dec. 19, 2021, when the Resurrection Parish community came together for their first Mass in the shed. About 60 people came together for the Mass led by Father David Kennedy and Deacon Mike Marsili. They brought the altar, tabernacle, crucifix and more  – all more or less unharmed – from the destroyed church.

The parish musician had just enough room in the back to sing into a microphone and play her 12-string guitar. Afterwards, they all came back up the walkway to the home of the property owners, Donnie and Rhonda Mills, for a post-Mass gathering.

For the past year, all of that has continued. The parish community has worshiped out of the shed every week, and gathered at the Mills’ home afterwards. In fact, Donnie and others believe that the difficult circumstances of the past year have actually made the parish community stronger.

“We had six families who had significant damage or total loss in our church community from the tornado, and of course everybody in the church experienced the effects of it, and has been involved in helping people get their lives back together,” Donnie told Crux. “And people tend to after Mass come to the house and hang around and talk to one another more than we did when we were coming out of church.”

“We’ve just built a stronger church community because of this.”

Marsili said the parish community has stuck together over the past year, responding to the hardships they and others in Kentucky have face.

“It’s one of those odd paradoxes where when a deep tragedy happens like what happened to us last year, where at first all you can see if the devastation, the damage, and the loss, but as you begin to see what comes out of that, God’s grace, God’s blessings are always bigger than whatever happens. It overcomes whatever tragedy.”

“When you see that in action, like we have seen it in the response to our individual parishioners, the response to our church, even the people who have sent donations, the people who have come by to see how we’re doing, that sort of thing has been monumental,” he added. “It’s been an opportunity to actually see what faith in action actually is … it’s very positive and uplifting.”

Keeping the Faith Alive

The reason Donnie was steadfast in converting the shed into a makeshift church just days after the tornado hit, and kept using it, was a desire to keep the small Dawson Springs Catholic community alive. He knew that if everyone joined a parish community in a neighboring county, that it would be difficult down the road to bring everyone back together in Dawson Springs.

That belief in the importance of having and maintaining a parish community Donnie credits to his father, who brought the Catholic faith to the small town of Marion, Kentucky, part of Crittenden County in the early 1960s. Marion is about 35 miles west of Dawson Springs.

As the story goes, as told by Donnie’s sister Elisa Mills, their father James Frederick Mills, known by all as “Jim Fred,” moved with their family from Union County to Crittenden County – the town of Marion in particular – to continue work as an electrician following World War II. There was no Catholic church in Crittenden County, so the family drove about 25 miles back to Union County for Mass every week.

Eventually, Jim Fred wrote a letter to then-Bishop Francis Cotton of Owensboro explaining the need for a Catholic Church in Crittenden County, who replied that he would put a church there if Fred could find enough parishioners to support it. He did. And after Cotton died in 1961, his successor Bishop Henry Soenneker kept good on his predecessor’s promise and sent a priest to Crittenden County.

The first Mass was in Fred’s basement on Aug. 5, 1962. From there they moved onto a rented house for Mass, before opening St. William Catholic Church in 1966, which still exists today.

“[Jim Fred’s] biggest legacy was St. William Catholic Church,” Elisa told Crux. “It’s remarkable that Donnie and Rhonda did this, but it’s really just a continuation of our legacy and our heritage.”

Donnie said he thought about that history a lot once they settled into the shed church in Dawson Springs.

“I thought about it a lot after the fact,” he said. “That plays a role in it because that’s always been important to me. It’s your church community. It’s not the structure, it’s the people.”

Breaking Ground on a New Resurrection Church

For the Resurrection parishioners, one difference between this year’s Christmas Mass and last is they can begin to look forward to breaking ground on a new church. Marsili, who’s been leading the project, said the site is ready for construction, they’re just waiting for final approval on the building plans the architect and contractor will soon deliver to the Diocese of Owensboro building committee.

Optimistically, Marsili said, they’ll break ground by late January-early February, and get into the building by the end of next year or early in 2024. Marsili acknowledged the long road ahead, but said whenever he gets down about that he reminds himself that the diocese didn’t even have to say yes to a rebuild.

“The fact that they could’ve said no but they didn’t, I just kind of think about that every time I get down about the whole process because we’re on our way to rebuilding and we are going to rebuild and that’s the reality that we’re living in,” Marsili said. “There’s no uncertainty. There’s no doubt.”

Bishop William Medley of Owensboro celebrated Christmas Eve at the makeshift parish last year. He told Crux that he “admire[s] them,” and the way they’ve stuck together as a community for the past year.

Follow John Lavenburg on Twitter: @johnlavenburg