By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
KANSAS CITY — There was no way to let people know in advance, but yet they dug into their wallets and purses and they gave.
And who knows why? Maybe it was the bond that still exists from the decades until 1956 that Joplin, Mo., was part of the old Diocese of Kansas City.
Or maybe simply it was because people were hurting.
The sixth deadliest tornado in United States history struck Joplin on May 22, a Sunday evening.
Mike Halterman, chief executive officer of Catholic Charities of Kansas City-St. Joseph, knew that the new Catholic Charities of Southern Missouri, serving Joplin and the Diocese of Springfield-Cape Girardeau, had yet to hire its first permanent director, and the interim director, Kyle Schott, was already dealing with floods in southeast Missouri.
That very evening, Halterman contacted Schott, as well as Catholic Charities’ directors in the Diocese of Jefferson City and the Archdiocese of St. Louis.
He knew the disaster was so great, that it wasn’t a matter of “Call us if we can help.” He knew it was time for Catholic Charities of Missouri to act.
“Teamwork,” Halterman told The Catholic Key. “We had a community that was hurting. It was easy to pull together.”
Halterman knew that Catholic Charities of Southern Missouri would need money as soon as possible.
He asked Bishop Robert W. Finn for permission to take up a special collection at all weekend Masses May 28-29 specifically for Charities’ tornado relief efforts in Joplin.
“Of course,” the bishop answered immediately.
Kathie Conwell, the Kansas City-St. Joseph Catholic Charities’ communications director, then got the word out to all parishes.
And with no more advance notice that a pastor saying, “We will be taking up a second collection for Joplin,” the money poured in — $134,833.68 just from people in the pews over the Memorial Day holiday weekend, giving from what cash they happened to have at Mass that day.
In addition, Conwell set up a link on the local Catholic Charities’ Web site where donations could be earmarked for Joplin. That brought in another $43,000.
How important is that money?
“It was critical,” said Maura Taylor, who began her job as the first executive director of Catholic Charities of Southern Missouri on June 13.
“The generosity of parishioners of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph has been amazing,” Taylor said.
It came as no surprise to Halterman.
“They are part of the team,” Halterman said of the Catholics of Kansas City-St. Joseph.
“It’s not just the money. They care,” he said. “The come to the table every time there is a need.”
And Catholic Charities of Kansas City-St. Joseph didn’t just send money.
Halterman assembled his staff and asked for two volunteers to join him and Conwell to provide on-site assistance in Joplin, for five days beginning May 26. That meant they would be giving up their holiday weekend with their families.
Case managers Jamie Wiggington and Patti O’Shea immediately stepped up.
The Kansas City-St. Joseph team arrived at St. Peter the Apostle Parish, the only parish of the city’s two Catholic parishes, left standing.
Conwell said that the pastor, Father J. Friedel, ask them first to turn the gym at adjacent McAuley High School into a relief center.
“When we got there, Father J. said, ‘Thank God, the cavalry is here!’” Conwell said. “He had been holding things together as best he could, but he needed us to help organize.”
Within hours, the high school gym became a relief distribution center, with clothes organized by size, and food, water and other essentials that were arriving by the truckload from all over the region and nation, including impromptu efforts led by parishes in the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph.
There was no shortage of volunteer manpower, Conwell said.
“People were coming from all over. They were coming from Kansas, Oklahoma, Arkansas,” she said. “They would show up and say, ‘We’ve come to help Joplin.’”
Father Friedel had another urgent request.
Knowing that his weekend Masses would be packed with parishioners from the destroyed St. Mary’s Parish who had lost family and everything they owned, Father Friedel wanted to serve hot meals after each of the four weekend Masses to anyone who wanted one and asked the Kansas City response team to organize it.
“He wanted everything up and running by 5 o’clock Mass on Saturday. We had it ready that morning,” Halterman said.
“God bless the Knights of Columbus,” Conwell said. “They set up a mobile kitchen right away.”
The Kansas City team worked long and hard in Joplin. But Halterman and Conwell said they got far more in return.
The parishioners of the leveled St. Mary’s began salvaging whatever items they could on the day after the tornado. They found their Nativity set, but also unconsecrated communion bread and wine.
Father Friedel said the St. Mary’s bread and wine would be the bread and wine for the weekend Masses at St. Peter the Apostle, which he would concelebrate with St. Mary pastor Father Justin Monaghan, and Springfield-Cape Girardeau Bishop James V. Johnston.
The Kansas City team attended all four Masses.
“It was an experience I will never forget,” Halterman said. “In all my forty-plus years of my career, I have never been impacted like that. We were serving people in need at the worst time of their lives.”
At one Mass, Edie Howard came surrounded by surviving family and friends. Edie had taken off work to meet her husband, Rusty, and two children, daughter Harli Jayce, 5, and son Hayze Cole, for dinner. They had just said their goodbyes, and Edie was driving back to work when the tornado struck.
Edie immediately called Rusty who assured her that he and the children would seek refuge in the Home Depot on Range Line Drive. Their bodies were found under the rubble of a collapsed wall, the children clutched in their father’s arms.
In his homilies at each Mass, Father Friedel told the church packed with broken hearts that the world was looking to Joplin to be a sign of triumph over tragedy.
“Despite the fact that this tornado has ripped through our community and tattered our hearts, we still come here today to be reminded of the Word and to celebrate the Eucharist,” he said.
“Without those things in our lives, we cannot be who the Lord calls us to be in this time and in this place,” Father Friedel said.
He also assured the people of St. Mary’s that “however long it is that you are going to be with us, please know that we do not see you as guests. We see you as part of our larger Catholic family here in Joplin. You have a home here in St. Peter’s as long as you want it or need it.”
“The world is looking to us,” Father Friedel said. “Even though we are hurt, we still have to proclaim a message of hope. We proclaim that Christ is living among us, and that is why we are here today.
“Christ is our reason for hope,” he said.
“‘I will come to you,’ he promised, and the Lord does come to us today, in his Word and at this table, and because he lives, we live,” Father Friedel said.
“Scarred though we are, tears continuing to flow down our faces, as people of faith we need to continue to proclaim that our Lord lives, and because he lives, we live.”
Though the debris has been cleared, Joplin will need the help of people who care for years, said Catholic Charities of Southern Missouri director Maura Taylor.
But she said the money that has come in from around the nation, including all four Catholic dioceses in Missouri, has already made a tremendous difference.
Kristie lost her home and sent her two teen daughters to live with an uncle in Texas. She recently obtained a trailer provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), but did not have the money to bring her daughters home. Catholic Charities of Southern Missouri was able to buy the girls bus tickets and food for the trip home.
Rebecca lost her job when the nursing home she worked at was destroyed in the tornado. She protected her patients during the storm, then worked 24 hours without rest while they were relocated. With no job, her landlord threatened her with eviction. Catholic Charities of Southern Missouri paid her back-rent and bought her more time to find a job.
Regina and her family lost their home. After weeks of searching, they finally found a decent rental home, but couldn’t afford the security deposit and first month’s rent. Catholic Charities of Southern Missouri paid it.
Taylor said that since the tornado, Catholic Charities of Southern Missouri has served 4,632 people in 1,562 households. Of those households, nearly 60 percent are receiving ongoing, long-term case management services.
Taylor said Catholic Charities of Southern Missouri still needs cash donations for rent and utility assistance, temporary housing, and prescription medications.
“The needs of so many of the survivors are almost overwhelming,” she said.
“With so little affordable housing available, many are living in tent cities or their cars,” Taylor said. “The extreme heat in Joplin is making life even more difficult.”
Halterman said that Catholic Charities of Kansas City-St. Joseph will continue to help, as will the people of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph.
“This is what our people are all about, reaching into their wallets out of the goodness of their hearts and giving to people in need,” he said.
“It makes me proud of our staff, proud of our people, and proud to be Catholic,” Halterman said.
Donations to Catholic Charities of Southern Missouri can be mailed to 601 S. Jefferson Ave., Springfield, MO 65806.