Signs of hope one year after Joplin tornado

The cross of St Marys Catholic church surrounded by the frame of the former church Courtesy of Show Me the Ozarks Magazine by photographer Doug Hunt CNA US Catholic News 5 21 12 The cross of St. Mary's Catholic church surrounded by the frame of the former parish. Courtesy of Show Me the Ozarks Magazine by photographer Doug Hunt.

As the residents of tornado-ravaged Joplin, Mo. mark the one-year anniversary of the disaster that hit their community, a diocesan spokeswoman says they are seeing it as an opportunity for hope and continued recovery.

“We’re looking forward to just getting past the anniversary and continuing on our journey of recovery,” Renee Motazedi, development director for Joplin-area Catholic schools, told CNA on May 21.

“As a faith community we are looking forward to what lies ahead, to the opportunities that may come from such a disaster,” she added. “There’s a lot of hope there.”

The Joplin, Missouri tornado of May 22, 2011 killed 161 people and was America’s deadliest single tornado in six decades. It destroyed thousands of buildings including Joplin High School and St. Mary’s Catholic Church and School.

St. John’s Regional Medical Center, a nine-storey building, took a direct hit from the tornado. Severe damaged forced the facility to be abandoned. Remnants of the Catholic hospital still stand, but they will be dismantled through the summer.

Today, the destruction area is “dotted” with houses and businesses that have rebuilt or are being rebuilt.

“In some areas, it’s a blank canvas,” Motazedi said.

Many public schools that are rebuilding will break ground on the anniversary of the storm, while plans for a new Catholic church are underway.

“That has become one of the bishop’s priorities so that we can better serve the Catholic faithful of the area,” Motazedi explained. “We’re all worshiping in one church where we used to have two.”

On May 22, Bishop James V. Johnston of Springfield-Cape Girardeau will join Joplin Catholic schools students, staff and faculty, as well as parishioners, at the foot of the cross that was at the former St. Mary’s Church to pray the Rosary.

Motazedi said the cross has become an “icon” of the disaster.

“It’s a huge large steel cross that at this point looms over the landscape,” she said.

Fr. Justin Monaghan, the former pastor of St. Mary’s, has received “several poignant letters” from survivors who were trapped in the rubble of the tornado but could see the cross.

“The cross was the thing that gave them hope that they would get out,” Motazedi recounted.

An electric utility has purchased the St. Mary’s Church land to build a power substation, a significant act in a “grieving community.”

However, the church has retained ownership of the area around the cross and the cemetery property.

A 6 p.m. Mass will be said at Joplin’s other Catholic church, St. Peter of the Apostles.

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Other community events include a 3.7-mile walk with several stops along the way, including groundbreaking at Joplin’s new public high school.

“Those stops all mark the future of Joplin,” said Motazedi. “They are significant events that show we are moving forward.

The elementary school attached to St. Mary’s Church reopened at a warehouse next to the area’s Catholic high school. Plans to rebuild the school, for preschoolers through the fifth grade, are on hold until plans for the new church can be made.

“The good things that have always happened inside the schools are still happening,” Motazedi said.

“My kids are students there and they have had a great year.”

Catholic Charities of Southern Missouri reports that its Repair/Rebuild Office has helped contribute to the rebuilding efforts, repairing more than 100 homes. It has helped rebuild two homes completely and nine houses are currently under construction.

The charity has nine case managers to help storm victims and has received a grant to hire another.

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Gabe Tischler, the disaster coordinator for Catholic Charities of Southern Missouri, recently told a disaster preparedness seminar in Baton Rouge, La. that local Catholic churches stepped up to help their neighbors.

The providential arrival of supplies and the support of volunteers has “reinforced my faith even more,” he said, according to the Baton Rouge newspaper The Advocate.

“When I first started this I was worried every day how we were going to pay for it and now I no longer lose sleep on it. It’s going to happen and it just happens.”

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