Tabernacle untouched at Oklahoma parish hit by powerful tornado

St. Mary's, Barnsdall, Oklahoma A powerful tornado hit St. Mary's Catholic Church in rural Barnsdall, Oklahoma, on May 6, 2024. | Credit: Daniel McCay/Eastern Oklahoma Catholic

A rural Oklahoma parish hit this week by a powerful tornado suffered serious damage, especially to its parish hall. But amid the rubble, broken glass, and winds possibly as high as 175 mph, the church’s tabernacle containing the body of Christ remained intact.

Father Emmanuel Nduka, who pastors three local churches including St. Mary’s, told CNA that the tabernacle’s survival served as a sign of God’s presence amid the devastation in the small Oklahoma town of Barnsdall.

“God is in control. There’s no reason why our church should be standing after what happened in Barnsdall Sunday night,” the priest told CNA.

Nduka lives in a neighboring town 30 minutes from Barnsdall, but early on May 7, as soon as he heard about the damage to the church, he raced over. No one was in the church building at the time of the tornado; the stone structure of the church building itself survived, while the parish hall next door was “completely leveled.”

The door of the small parish church was destroyed, and the force of the apocalyptic wind smashed the church’s windows, Nduka continued.  

“The wind really entered into the church. So it is very, very mind-boggling to see that the tabernacle was still standing there in the sanctuary, and the sanctuary light was still burning,” Nduka said.

He said when he entered the church, he immediately bowed down and offered thanksgiving to God for “showing his presence.” 

The tabernacle of St. Mary's in Barnsdall, Oklahoma, remained untouched despite widespread damage to the surrounding area after a tornado touched down on May 6, 2024. Credit: Daniel McCay/Eastern Oklahoma Catholic
The tabernacle of St. Mary's in Barnsdall, Oklahoma, remained untouched despite widespread damage to the surrounding area after a tornado touched down on May 6, 2024. Credit: Daniel McCay/Eastern Oklahoma Catholic

The National Weather Service in Tulsa concluded that the May 6 tornado that hit Barnsdall was an EF4 with wind speeds between 165 and 175 mph. It cut a 39-mile path of destruction, causing severe damage to trees, homes, and businesses, including a local refinery plant that provides many local jobs. The damage was so severe that the tornado’s path was visible from space.

According to local news reports, 30 to 40 homes were damaged or destroyed in Barnsdall, including a nursing home. One person is confirmed dead and another is still missing as of Friday.

The May 6, 2024, tornado left a path of destruction but spared the Catholic church in the rural Oklahoma town of Barnsdall. Credit: Daniel McCay/Eastern Oklahoma Catholic
The May 6, 2024, tornado left a path of destruction but spared the Catholic church in the rural Oklahoma town of Barnsdall. Credit: Daniel McCay/Eastern Oklahoma Catholic

 Nduka said he resolved to celebrate Mass this coming Sunday at the church “as a sign of hope.” Cleanup has been progressing and utilities have been restored, he said, so they are “over 90%” set for Mass in the church on Sunday.

The Diocese of Tulsa has been “very, very supportive,” Nduka said, adding that he has spoken to the bishop, and the chancellor has been out to visit the site. He said the parish is in the process of working with its insurance provider, but more funds will likely be needed for a full recovery. The diocese has encouraged people wishing to support the parish to donate to the diocese’s parish fund and select “St. Mary Barnsdall” to ensure their gift goes to the relief effort.

Nduka requested prayers for his parish community, saying many people, especially the men of the parish, have come together in the wake of the disaster to offer help. 

“I am very grateful to them, that we have such men who so much love their church and were willing to help in any way for the church to keep going,” the priest said. 

“We need prayer from people of goodwill, for strength ... knowing that God is in control and we shall bounce back better and stronger.”

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