The back of the opera house in Canton, Ill., is seen Nov. 20, four days after a natural gas explosion unnerved the community. CNS photo/Tom Dermody, The Catholic Post

Parish thankful after natural gas explosion damaged church and other buildings

By  Tom Dermody, Catholic News Service
  • November 25, 2016

CANTON, Ill. – A deadly natural gas explosion that rocked the downtown square of Canton Nov. 16 also temporarily knocked the faith community of St. Mary Parish out of their damaged church, located just a block east of the blast site.

"The good thing is we have somewhere to be," said Father Daniel Ebker, pastor, as he celebrated Sunday Mass four days later in the St. Mary's Parish Center, built next to the church 15 years ago.

On the evening of the explosion, Father Ebker opened the center as a rest area for first responders, city crews and utility workers and stayed there throughout the night. The blast, which killed one utility worker – Arturo Silva Jr. of Mapleton – and injured 11, occurred just before 6 p.m. as workers with the local power company attempted repairs after a third-party contractor had ruptured a gas line behind the city's historic Opera House.

The explosion rendered three buildings a total loss and damaged nearly 50 other structures, among them the nearby 111-year-old St. Mary Church.

Inspectors subsequently found no structural damage to the church and all of its stained-glass windows remained intact – unlike the majority of storefront windows on the city square which were blown out by the blast. But ceiling plaster had cracked, resulting in quarter-sized pieces or smaller falling throughout the church.

"There are some four-sided cracks, pieces like this big," reported Father Ebker, spreading his arms wide.

"They are afraid those pieces can come loose and fall down," he told The Catholic Post, newspaper of the Diocese of Peoria.

Notices were placed on church doors that, until repairs are made, Saturday afternoon Masses have been canceled and Sunday morning Masses will take place in the hall of the parish center. For the 150 parishioners who filled the hall for the 8 a.m. Mass four days after the explosion, there was plenty to be grateful for as the Thanksgiving holiday approached.

"I'm thankful the church was basically spared," said Kathy Dye, parish organist, who used the electronic keyboard on which she teaches piano lessons to lead the music in the parish hall. "It's wonderful we can come together and praise the Lord in this way."

Laura DeFrain, parish secretary, was among the parishioners who assisted Father Ebker in helping the first responders at the parish center the night of the blast. Remarkably, the parish center did not lose power.

"We passed out water, had coffee and snacks for them, offered the use of our bathrooms, whatever," said DeFrain.

Her husband, Kevin, is manager of the J.C. Penney store located just north of the blast site. The couple was celebrating their wedding anniversary with a dinner in Peoria when their daughter, Gillian, called from downtown Canton.

"She was right in the square," said DeFrain, recalling the panic in the voice of her daughter, who was unharmed.

In his Sunday Mass homily, Father Ebker said some may ask "How could God let Canton suffer like it did?" Asking why God allows pain, suffering and death are "legitimate, important questions."

"The reason we are here is we do have the answer," continued Father Ebker, noting the church was celebrating the feast of Christ the King.

"Christ is the king of the universe who suffered and died on the cross because he loves you, because he wanted to fix the problems we create," said Father Ebker.

The pastor said he hoped the faith community might be back in their church by Christmas.

parish-explosion-webFather Daniel Ebker distributes Communion to parishioners at St. Mary's Parish in Canton, Ill., Nov. 20. (CNS photo/Tom Dermody, The Catholic Post)

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