At least 70 people were killed after a tornado struck western Kentucky Friday night, devastating towns and crumbling buildings. As recovery efforts continue, the death toll in the state is expected to rise beyond 100 people.
Most of the deaths were in western Kentucky, in the Diocese of Owensboro, where workers in a candle factory were crushed under the building’s roof, and a tornado tore a path of destruction more than 200 miles across the state.
The Pillar spoke Sunday morning with Owensboro’s Bishop William Medley about what happened, what’s needed, and how he’s doing.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Bishop, what can you tell us about what’s happened in the Diocese of Owensboro?
Well, you’re probably not surprised that communication has been, well, troubled.
In Owensboro where I live, we were not impacted by the storm. We had some wind, but we were not struck by the tornado.
But we were without phone service, much of yesterday, for whatever reasons, both landlines and cell phones. So it was not until late in the afternoon Saturday that I was able to talk to the two pastors of parishes that so far as I know, were the most affected by the storm.
First Father Eric Riley, who is pastor St. Joseph Church in Mayfield, where, as you have seen on the news, a lot of the town has been destroyed, and dozens of people were trapped inside of a candle factory that was hit by the tornado. Many of them were Hispanic workers — and so they are by tradition Catholic. And that little parish in that little town...the Catholic church there is predominantly Hispanic now.
So, just a lot of...a lot of suffering in the days to come. So far as I know, even this morning they’re still recovering bodies from the site, with hope that perhaps they may still make a discovery of someone alive. But probably that hope is is dimming now.
And there is another town that has also been hit by the tornado and has also suffered, the town of Dawson Springs. I finally talked to Fr. David Kennedy, the pastor there, late in the afternoon on Saturday.
And because so much of the media attention was on Mayfield. I was not aware that it would appear that the church in Dawson Springs may be a total loss. The roof is certainly off of it, and it would appear from photographs I’ve seen that the walls may have buckled, so we’ll just have to wait and see.
There was a beautiful photograph from the Evansville Courier & Press, of a statue of the Blessed Mother and child standing still intact amidst the rubble. So it was very moving for those of us who today celebrate the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
There were fatalities in Dawson Springs as well. As a matter of fact, I’m told there are five or six different counties in western Kentucky that had 10 or more fatalities. But that’s all still being sorted out, because the task is just overwhelming.
Have you had the chance to travel to the places most affected?
I am traveling today. I am going to Graves County, which is where Mayfield is. The neighboring church is St. Jerome in Fancy Farm. And Fr. Eric Riley, the pastor of St. Joseph in Mayfield, is going to celebrate Mass this afternoon, and so I’m going to join him for that, just to be a sign of hope and consolation for the people who are gathering there.
And there have to be hundreds of people who are homeless, above and beyond those who have lost their lives or had a loved one lose their lives.
So I look forward to being there, but it’s intimidating to think about being in the midst of such grief and suffering as well.
Bishop, it seems the diocese will have a few tasks: Rebuilding your own buildings, but also providing aid to people, and then pastoral care and pastoral presence for people who are suffering. How will you begin? What are the first steps?
Well, I was going to say, you know, that there is no game plan for something like this, but indeed there is. For us, the plan is the Gospel — the promise of Jesus Christ. That’s where we’ll begin.
We’re getting pledges and offers of financial support from all over the country. So I think we’re going to be a significant force in terms of offering assistance to those in immediate need, and perhaps long-term need.
But the whole point of joining with Fr. Riley and the St. Joseph community of Mayfield this afternoon for Mass is to ground this whole experience of loss and devastation in hope.
This is the third Sunday of Advent. We call that Gaudete Sunday, which reminds us that even in the midst of long waiting, we find joy. And so now, to try to feel that at this moment is probably remote, but I hope that perhaps part of the memories of these awful days, for those who come to this Mass today, that it will provide another segment of memory — that when we have tragedy like this, we turn in faith to Christ, the only one who can really give us hope.
How will you preach, on Gaudete Sunday, about rejoicing, when you offer Mass for people who have just lost everything?
Well, Fr. Riley will preach today, because the Mass will be bilingual — because St. Joseph Parish is bilingual — and he is far more capable of preaching in a bilingual situation than I am.
It’s about a two and a half hour drive for me to get there, and I will be praying on that drive for him, that he will find those words, and then I’ll join him in prayer in the Mass. He is a good and effective pastor.
Today is the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and this community is more than half Hispanic. So I’m sure he’ll be trying to weave together both the experience of Advent and the anticipation of Christmas with this great feast of Our Lady.
What can Catholics across the country do to help?
Well, prayer, first and foremost. You know, anyone who’s ever experienced a tragedy large or small knows how stunned one is, how discouraged one can be. So we have hundreds of families in our Catholic community, and thousands in our western Kentucky community, who are experiencing that kind of shock and trepidation right now. So we need people’s prayers.
But we’re also gonna need some financial support. There’s going to be some immediate needs of helping people to plan and execute funerals in a town where there’s almost nothing left standing. So there’s just a lot of logistics.
The National Guard is on site. The Red Cross is on site. And I would imagine that every faith community in the state will be trying marshal some resources to help those folks out. So the logistics of figuring out where to start and what are people needs at this moment in this time — I know that will all come in place. But it’s daunting at this moment.
For you personally, Bishop, this must feel like the biggest challenge of your episcopacy. What do you ask the Lord as you begin?
Well, I ask the Lord to remind me the message of this Advent, that we are people of hope. The the darkest night or the darkest times are not the final chapter, but rather, the resurrection of Christ from the dead is the triumphant story for all humanity. And so I will continue to ground myself in that message, and I know the people will help ground me in that.