Part of the front of St. Joseph's Catholic Church remains standing Feb. 29 after a tornado ripped through Ridgway, Ill. Homes, churches and businesses were destroyed by multiple tornadoes in six states. At least 12 people were killed in the violent storms. CNS photo/Paul Newton, courtesy of The Southern Illinoisan

Tornado destroys Illinois Catholic church; death toll reaches 12

By  Liz Quirin, Catholic News Service
  • March 1, 2012

RIDGWAY, Ill - Elizabeth Schmitt, who planned to get married in May at St. Joseph Church in Ridgway, never imagined she would be picking up debris from the gothic church that was completely destroyed in the Feb. 29 tornado.

Tornadoes swept through parts of the Midwest and the South, killing at least a dozen people and injuring more than 100 in Illinois, Missouri and Tennessee.

"It gives a whole new meaning to destruction," Schmitt said as she pulled on her gloves to continue cleaning up the church property.

The church, built in 1894, was destroyed just after 5 a.m. by a tornado that tore through the small southern Illinois town with a population of about 800.

"You just never imagine something like this was going to happen," Schmitt told The Messenger, newspaper of the Belleville Diocese.

Now she doesn't know where her wedding will take place. "This is where all of our family members were married," she said as she looked around at the devastation.

In Missouri, the tornado caused heavy damage particularly to the country music resort of Branson.

"These storms have caused extensive damage across Missouri, and widespread damage and debris continue to pose significant risk to lives and property," said Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, who declared a state of emergency along with Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn.

Susamma Seeley, director of disaster response for Catholic Charities Missouri, told Catholic News Service March 1 that local Catholic Charities agencies were "on standby" as they were determining the scope of damage and needs of local residents.

In Branson, Catholic Charities planned to partner with a Red Cross agency to provide a resource center to provide for area needs.

Seeley said officials with the Southern Missouri Catholic Charities agency also were contacting local parishes to see if they would be able to serve as community resources centers even just for a few days.

She said a primary concern was to identify people in need in rural areas that might be forgotten and to deliver water, food or gas cards to them.

In Ridgway, parishioners and neighbors arrived early at St. Joseph Church to begin cleaning up.

"We just don't wait for others to help," said parishioner and firefighter Chris Wargel. When his pager sounded in the early morning, Wargel said the two-minute drive to the fire station took an hour because of the damage and debris in the town.

He said people from surrounding towns and parishes arrived at the church to help move pieces that had been salvaged to another building.

The church took a hard hit because it was the tallest structure in town. However, the marble altar that came from Italy managed to survive the storm. A former pastor, Msgr. Joseph Lawler, said he hopes the altar can be disassembled and saved. It was not immediately clear what would happen.

A Catholic Mutual insurance agent for the diocese estimated the damage at St. Joseph was more than $2 million, and the entire loss, including the rectory and roof on a gymnasium next door, will be much more. He said inspectors will determine the extent of the structural damage to the rectory.

Father Steven Beatty, parish administrator of St. Joseph, was asleep in an upstairs bedroom in the rectory next to the church when the tornado hit. He was awakened by the sound of breaking glass.

When he tried to go downstairs, his way was blocked by debris. He made it down the stairs on the banister, not realizing that the huge, gothic church next door was demolished.

The priest posted a note on his front door which said: "I'm fine. I'm out checking on the neighbors."

In a letter posted on the diocesan website, Belleville Bishop Edward K. Braxton asked all in the diocese to join him in "offering our prayerful support to Father Beatty, the Christian faithful of St. Joseph Parish, and to all of those in the communities that have been affected by this terrible storm."

"In time, there may be other ways, in which we can assist our sisters and brothers in St. Joseph Parish. I know that we will all be as generous as possible in offering assistance, if it is requested," he added.

Father Beatty told The Messenger that Ridgway was in better shape than neighboring Harrisburg where 100 people were injured and 250 to 300 homes destroyed in the community of 9,000 people.

Six people were killed in Harrisburg where winds were up to 166 mph. Three other people died in Missouri, and three died in Tennessee.

St. Mary's Church in Harrisburg was not damaged.

Nancy Lombard, a parishioner of St. Mary's, said her home still "looks kind of like a house" but her neighbors have hardly anything left of their homes.

"It's all just stuff," she said. "Everybody's all right, and that's the main thing. We can replace stuff."

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