MAYFIELD, Kentucky — Not once has Christie Scarbrough, the business manager at St. Joseph Parish in Mayfield, heard the words “is this ever going to end” from the parish volunteers helping with tornado relief efforts.
“We’re tired,” she said. And yet, “everyone always comes together.”
It is now the third month since historic tornadoes struck Kentucky, Arkansas, Tennessee, Missouri and Illinois during the night of Dec. 10. Of Catholic dioceses in the region, the communities within the Diocese of Owensboro in western Kentucky sustained the most damage.
Per a Feb. 21 message from the office of Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear, the western Kentucky tornado death toll is 80, including a 33-year-old woman from Mayfield and her baby, who lived only six days. The governor has stated this was the worst tornado outbreak in Kentucky history.
From the property of St. Joseph, whose bell tower was torn off, the tornado’s trail is clearly visible from where it continued down the street to obliterate downtown Mayfield.
The stillness in the small Kentucky town is only broken up by the crunch of car tires over dust and gravel, and metal scraping against asphalt as work crews clear debris from the impacted areas.
Dilapidated homes stand empty, sometimes bearing spray-painted messages from residents begging that the structure not be demolished.
But activity is vibrant and welcoming at St. Joseph’s campus, where despite the desolation all around them, the parish continues to offer a well-stocked distribution center for their neighbors in need.
Many people in Mayfield and the surrounding areas were already struggling financially even before the tornadoes came. When the storms damaged or destroyed their homes, residents turned to the church.
Scarbrough said people will come for help from as far as Tennessee.
“We just don’t turn anybody away,” she told The Western Kentucky Catholic, Owensboro’s diocesan newspaper.
Scarbrough admitted that the first two to three weeks after the tornado were hard.
While St. Joseph’s waited to hear from insurance whether their damaged church would be stable enough to permit worship inside, the parish became a hub for helping people who had lost everything in the storms.
Father Eric Riley, the pastor, and parishioner Alfredo “Freddy” Gonzalez coordinated with Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Owensboro to operate a system of distributing water, clothing, blankets, canned food and other necessities out of the parish center.
St. Jerome Parish in Fancy Farm, about 10 miles up the road, opened its church doors for the Mayfield parish to celebrate Mass there until St. Joseph’s was finally cleared by insurance to permit worship.
St. Joseph Parish celebrated its first Mass back inside their church Dec. 24.
Today, Scarbrough said the initial onset of visitors in critical need has slowed down, but the distribution center continues to provide food and clothing to about 300-400 people per week. Through Catholic Charities funds, the parish also provides gift cards so people can purchase other items.
“Donations to the church have slowed down considerably,” she added, and said they feel blessed when they are remembered by others outside the community.
Parishioners are grateful for St. John the Evangelist Parish in Paducah, Kentucky, which sends volunteers to Mayfield every Wednesday to give the St. Joseph volunteers a break.
Scarbrough said that without fail, whenever their distribution center is running low on supplies, they receive more donations.
“Every time God provides and we get exactly what we need,” she said. “It’s like that every single time. Just little miracles.”
Scarbrough said it has happened like this “from the get-go.”
For example, “a truck from Jacksonville came by when we were running low on stuff yesterday,” she said.
The shipment was a collaboration of several Jacksonville, Florida-area Knights of Columbus councils and St. John the Baptist Parish in Atlantic Beach, Florida.
Along with essentials to share with those in need of assistance, the Floridians also sent a check, notes of encouragement, and a box of wooden crosses decorated by St. John the Baptist Parish’s religious education catechists and students.
Scarbrough said they are moved when contributors include personal touches like this. “People sending encouraging words for folks who need it so much.”
Her home was untouched by the storms, but she said it continues to feel abnormal when driving downtown and realizing all that isn’t there.
Still, Scarbrough cannot say enough about her parish’s commitment. Many retired parishioners have been helping out regularly, and the teamwork of St. Joseph’s bilingual Latino/Anglo community makes sure anyone who visits can be assisted properly.
“The people here volunteering and giving of their time want to help,” she said.
Looking ahead to brighter days, the parish plans to host a diocesan Corpus Christi pilgrimage with Owensboro Bishop William F. Medley through the streets of Mayfield in June.
“It’s God working through all these people here,” said Scarbrough. “Every day it gets better.”
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Barnstead is editor of The Western Kentucky Catholic, newspaper of the Diocese of Owensboro.