The Augustianian monastery at Sacred Heart Church in Delta, B.C., is reflected in the flood waters that have devastated the province. Photo from The B.C. Catholic.

Faith and the B.C. floods

By  Terry O’Neill and Bonnie Way, Canadian Catholic News
  • November 24, 2021

VANCOUVER -- When Fr. Francis Galvan left Sacred Heart Church in Delta, B.C., for a priests’ study week in Harrison Hot Springs, he didn’t expect to find himself at the centre of a catastrophic flood as British Columbia found itself facing what is being called the storm of the century.

But within hours, the Augustinian priest was in Agassiz, B.C., at ground zero of rescue efforts from the devastating floods that followed record rainfalls in mid-November along Canada’s west coast, with mudslides destroying highways and bridges and cutting off communities from the rest of the world. Galvan witnessed humanity at its best, joining with Agassiz residents in responding to the needs of stranded travellers.

“There I saw and realized how the human heart in the worst situations comes out its best — eyes looking only at those in need of help,” said Galvan.

Galvan had arrived in Harrison Hot Springs Nov. 15 only to find the study week cancelled due to torrential rains, so he headed over to St. Anthony of Padua Church in Agassiz to check in with pastor Fr. Dennis Flores. There the two priests saw rescue helicopters flying overhead and decided to head to the town community centre. They found themselves in the middle of a massive rescue and relief effort.

“Strong winds were blowing along with heavy rains, and I watched rescue helicopters landing, one after another,” Galvan said.

Emerging from the helicopters were weary evacuees who had been stranded by mudslides along Hwy. 7.

“I saw exhausted, hungry and tired people including their children and dogs,” Galvan said.

As they were cared for by first responders and volunteers, others at the community centre were busily organizing clothing, food and water being brought in by local residents.

The two priests returned to the rectory to gather more volunteers and then stopped in at the parish thrift store to collect blankets and additional clothing. Using Flores’ truck, they ended up taking three loads of donations to the community centre.

“Thank God for the thrift store because we have so much we can help people with,” said Linda VanScheyndel, a thrift store worker and head of the St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Women’s League. “It’s just amazing how the people in Agassiz have come forward with food, clothing, blankets, places to stay, and for such a small town.”

By mid-afternoon, St. Anthony’s parishioners were taking evacuees into their homes, including a stranded family unable to return to their home near Vernon. Allen and Jammeelyn Albert and their two children had been on their way to Mexico for a week-long vacation when they were trapped by the storm. After being stranded on the highway, they were airlifted along with other evacuees to the Agassiz community centre.

A parish host family took them in and Flores accompanied the host father to the thrift store to pick up suitable winter attire for the family, who had packed only light clothing for their tropical getaway.

When the hosts realized they would need a queen-sized bed, parishioners again stepped up, said Flores.

“One of our volunteers said they had one in their house, and they went to Harrison and got the whole bed — the frame, the mattress — and he helped me with my truck to deliver it to the host family.”

When the community learned one of the Alberts’ children would be turning six in a few days, birthday gifts came pouring in for the family.

Flores said he was grateful for the generosity he’s seen within the community as it supported those affected by the flooding and landslides. Galvan made the same observation, saying, “One thing I learned from this event is that we cannot underestimate the power of the human heart and its ability to move our bodies, to the point of not thinking of ourselves, but the needs of those who needed it the most.”

The record flooding and devastation affected other churches in the Archdiocese of Vancouver.

In Abbotsford, migrant workers who were forced to flee floodwaters are being supported by St. Ann’s Parish, which has an active pastoral care ministry for Hispanic migrants and a special focus on temporary seasonal farm workers.

“We are looking after the migrant workers who have been transported to the Tradex Centre by the airport,” parish secretary Frances McNeil said. “For now, they are safe, dry and fed.”

An estimated 200 seasonal farm workers have had to relocate to temporary shelters in the Abbotsford and Chilliwack areas.

McNeil said the parish was relieved to learn that several female Guatemalan farmworkers supported by the parish were evacuated from the farm at which they were working and taken to a shelter in Chilliwack.

Floodwaters forced several St. Ann’s parishioners to evacuate their dairy farms.

“We have had parishioners call to offer help if needed and one has offered his basement for a family to reside until they are able to return home,” McNeil said.

The parish centre was also made available as an emergency shelter if needed.

At St. Mary’s Church in Chilliwack, Lise Tetreault was at the centre of relief efforts for 130 displaced male migrant workers from Central America who were being housed temporarily at the city’s Evergreen Hall. Tetreault, who heads the parish’s eight-person Migrant Ministry team, was helping find better lodgings, at private homes, for the workers, as well as obtaining underwear and socks for the men. Team members also took 11 female workers from Guatemala shopping for essential clothing and toiletries.

“Anything you can do to help them get through it,” she said, noting it was “amazing” to see how the community has come together to offer support.

In Hope, where some 1,200 motorists and truckers were stranded because of washed-out and flooded highways, Our Lady of Good Hope parishioners were doing what they could to help. Michelle LaBossiere said individual members of the parish were supporting relief efforts by donating food and services to stranded travellers.

“Our town, as a whole, is very generous, especially in these situations,” LaBossiere said.

At the church itself, Fr. Gordon Cook, OMI, said the parish made its parking lot and washroom facilities available for stranded travellers. He wasn’t able to open the parish hall due to lack of staffing and because the church itself had been without power due to the storm.

“The hall, the rectory, the church, everything was just freezing cold in here,” Cook said. “There was no way I could have allowed anyone in here.”

Cook has been able to check in on most of his parishioners by phone. At least one parishioner had been flooded out of her home and forced to seek refuge with family.

The parish hall, church and rectory were untouched by the high waters, but the unprecedented crisis has rattled the parish.

“I’ve been here eight-and-a-half years, and I’ve never seen a situation like we’ve got now,” Cook said. “Right now Hope is like an island. We’re cut off from everything. Nothing can come in, and nothing can go out. It’s just cut off completely.”

A handful of churches around the archdiocese reported flooding from the rainstorms, including St. Andrew Kim in Surrey, Holy Name of Jesus in Vancouver and St. Mary’s in Vancouver.

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