Hundreds gathered at St. Edward the Confessor Church for an April 26 prayer service for the victims of the van attack on Yonge Street. Photo courtesy of Archdiocese of Toronto

Church plays a role in crisis management in aftermath of tragedy

  • May 2, 2018

Tragedy strikes. It’s inevitable and, unfortunately, constant.

For most, it is usually someone else’s tragedy, but there comes a time when the tentacles of disaster envelope almost everyone. At these times first responders are critically put to the test. Likewise, faith communities are tested as they care for spiritual and emotional wounds.

There was the Humboldt Broncos’ bus crash on a northern Saskatchewan road last month that claimed 16 lives, mostly young men who were in pursuit of hockey dreams. And the 2017 shooting at the Quebec City mosque where six worshippers were gunned down and 19 others injured when a gunman opened fire during evening prayers.

And now the carnage wreaked April 23 on a Toronto street, when a van was deliberately driven onto the sidewalk and used to mow down pedestrians, killing 10 and injuring 16 others.

Even the hardest souls are touched by such horrific events that seem beyond reality. They touch home. What athlete has not sat with teammates on a bus? Who hasn’t prayerfully gathered with others of like faith in worship? And, most common of all, who hasn’t walked down a busy thoroughfare like Yonge Street, separated from traffic by just a few inches of curb?

And in less than a second, all is changed.

Fr. Pat O’Dea believes you can never be fully ready for such a situation.

“You can’t prepare for it, everyone’s in shock,” said the pastor of St. Edward the Confessor Parish, mere steps from where the pedestrians were struck down along Yonge Street. “It just comes at you.”

Parish priests are used to dealing with death. Parishioners die and the Church community is there for them. In its own way, the Church is like a first responder called to an accident scene to care for spiritual pain.

“We’re almost always ready, (we’re) prepared for whatever,” said O’Dea.

O’Dea was driving on Yonge Street when all hell broke loose. He was heading southbound, several blocks from the crime scenes, on his way to a meeting downtown when he saw fire trucks and police cars, sirens wailing, heading the other way. 

“I just have a bad feeling about this,” he recalls thinking.

His fears were confirmed when the news broke that one person had been killed. When his meeting concluded, the reports had nine dead. O’Dea hurried back to St. Edward’s, where the healing would just be starting. And it extended far beyond the church.

“Our faith community says you don’t have to do this on your own, you can get help — through the beautiful rituals of our liturgy, and you can get help through our walk-in services,” said Dennis Costello, executive director of Catholic Family Services Toronto.

CFS is prepared for an onslaught of grief at all times. Its counsellors are daily in contact with people going through crisis in their lives. Staff are prepared immediately for when a large crisis hits.

“All the CFS agencies and walk-in clinics, this is what they are designed for,” said Costello. “They work perfectly in this kind of situation.”

Like O’Dea, Costello said CFS has to be prepared. “The plan is to expect the unexpected,” he said.

In the aftermath, Costello said he saw an upswing in the need for CFS’s services. It has an office a short distance from the crime scene, and as the week went on walk-in traffic increased. He only expects that to continue, particularly as details slowly emerged about the crime and the apparent motive behind it. Reports have suggested alleged van driver Alek Minassian, 25, might have been motivated by an anger he bears towards women. Costello believes those reports could be a trigger for women who were in past abusive relations.

“It will re-traumatize people who have been in bad situations,” he said.

The release of the names of victims also triggered new feelings as the connection became more real. The first named victim was Anne Marie D’Amico, a parishioner at St. Clare’s Parish in midtown Toronto. Her connection to the church community was immense. 

Just days before the van attack, O’Dea had been in contact with Ms. D’Amico’s sister, Frances, a Grade 7 teacher at St. Edward the Confessor Catholic School. They were discussing Confirmation preparation for the school’s students. And her parents are strong supporters of CFS, said Costello, as well as marriage preparation instructors in the archdiocese.

“When it becomes personal, then it will hit people,” said Costello.

At Sunnybrook Hospital, the trauma centre where most of the injured were transported, the chaplaincy team had to muster all of its training to deal with not only the victims and their families, but the doctors and nurses who, while trained for such a horrific scene, experienced something very traumatic.

“You don’t ever think that kind of catastrophic event is going to happen to you and your city,” said Christine O’Brien, a chaplain at the hospital.

For O’Brien, preparing for tragedy means dipping into her well of faith.

“You prepare by being connected, and for me that’s being connected with my faith and that gives meaning to the work I do,” she said.

As a major trauma centre, Sunnybrook sees its share of critical cases. Still the feeling this time was different, said O’Brien, a Catholic who received her theological training at Toronto’s University of St. Michael’s College and the Toronto School of Theology. 

“It had a different edge to it. It felt different. It was different.”

But the chaplaincy team was ready for the Code Orange situation — the code to alert staff of a mass casualty event.

“The leadership team has gone through lengthy preparations and that filters down in terms of what we do,” she said.

In the aftermath, O’Brien reflected on the efforts of the whole hospital team, from doctors and nurses to the chaplains and hospital administrators. 

“We couldn’t avoid tragedy for people. All we could do was serve them and be present to them and be willing to share their pain and walk with them for this little part of a terrible and difficult journey.”

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