Catholic churches and schools in Arkansas rallied March 31 as a tornado tore through Pulaski and Cross counties.
The faithful turned to prayer as tornadoes carved a deadly path through the center of the United States March 31, killing at least 32, injuring dozens and devastating thousands of homes and businesses.
More than 50 preliminary tornado reports have been received in at least seven states: Alabama, Arkansas, Illinois, Iowa, Mississippi, Tennessee and Wisconsin. At least 32 people were killed, including one in North Little Rock and four in Wynne.
By the afternoon of April 1, powerful winds had knocked out the power in more than 850,000 homes and businesses in 14 states, according to PowerOutage.us.
Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders declared a state of emergency after multiple devastating tornadoes struck the state, including Little Rock, the state capital. She promised to "spare no resource to assist with response and recovery efforts."
Parishes throughout the affected areas canceled planned Lenten devotions for Friday evening, but Christ the King Church and Our Lady of the Holy Souls Church, both in Little Rock, offered free fish fry dinners hours after the storm to those who needed a meal and a place to charge their phones.
The storm hit Little Rock around 2:20 p.m. as schools were preparing for dismissal. Christ the King principal Kathy House said she told former pastor Bishop Francis I. Malone of Shreveport she was grateful the school invested in building a safe room in 2015 in case of tornadoes.
Christ the King Church, located two miles from the hardest hit area of Little Rock, organized a donation station April 1-3 in its gathering space with tables filled with food, toiletries and clothes. Volunteers prepared a hot lunch and dinner for three days while survivors filled carts with toilet paper, paper towels and diapers. The station moved April 4 to the parish’s Ministries Building for another two weeks to continue to offer the essentials.
On April 1, Catholic High School in Little Rock opened its annual rummage sale, Junktique, up to anyone affected by the storm and needed furniture and other essentials.
The annual Catholic Youth Ministry Convention met March 31-April 2 but had a delayed start to allow people more time to arrive in downtown Little Rock.
Pulaski County parishes reported 25 families lost their homes or their homes were severely damaged.
Kristy Dunn, principal of St. Theresa School in Little Rock, told OSV News the tornadoes were all too familiar.
"I actually experienced a tornado destroying my house when I was 14," she said. "So it's a part of my experience. It's a little emotional to speak about."
Dunn said one student's home was flattened by the tornado, with "a very generous school family" taking in the child and her family, as Dunn and the school community gathered clothing and other necessities.
The St. Theresa students had been in church when a storm watch — quickly upgraded to a warning — was issued in the 2 p.m. hour, said Dunn. Students and staff relocated to the school to shelter, following emergency guidelines developed in part by her brother, a National Weather Service meteorologist, and a school parent who is an engineer.
"The Lord is abundantly good," said Dunn. "Having those two (experts) in addition to law enforcement helped us to stay safe."
Dunn, who said school faculty did "a tremendous job" in reassuring the children, checked on the classes throughout the warning, saying she "wanted to be with every single class, in every single safe space."
She was especially concerned about the third-grade classes, who had been hard hit by news of the March 27 mass shooting at The Covenant School in Nashville, Tenn., which claimed the lives of six, including three 9-year-old students.
"Our third-grade classes realized they were the same age as the victims," said Dunn. "They had a lot of emotions yesterday already, and then we're telling them to shelter in place for (tornadoes)."
Students turned to prayer, with one kindergarten boy excitedly telling Dunn he and his classmates had "prayed two times."
St. Theresa pastor Father Stephen Gadberry told OSV News that students at other area Catholic schools had done the same, sharing videos from Christ the King Catholic School in Little Rock, where children sang Christian composer Michael W. Smith's song "Our God Is An Awesome God," and from Sacred Heart School in Morrilton, whose students sang the Divine Mercy chaplet to guitar accompaniment.
Father Gadberry said while his parish did not sustain any direct damage, he was "still assessing" the storm's impact on parishioners, who are also organizing to assist cleanup efforts.
The tornado moved east and hit Cross County. Bishop Anthony B. Taylor celebrated Mass April 4 at St. Peter Church in Wynne to support those who lost their homes, schools and businesses.
Father Gadberry said his mother and two brothers in Wynne were unhurt, although the town was "obliterated," he said.
"Thank the Lord, (our) house is out in the country on a family farm, so it didn't have any damage," he said. "But they all saw it go south of the house."
The church was spared, said Father Gadberry, who spoke with pastor Father Alfhones Perikala.
"There's no major damage to the church, which is truly a miracle, since right across the road from them, other buildings were obliterated," Father Gadberry said. "But a number of parishioners have completely lost their homes. Having grown up there, it was very surreal to see the news headlines."
Amid the loss of life and property, the storms have helped to reveal God's mysterious plans, he said.
"Any time a natural disaster hits … it brings us to our knees, and not in a cute theological sense," Father Gadberry said. "It levels the playing field and shows we're not the big and strong individuals we think we are. We really do need community. Literally, overnight, enemies are working together in the same yard, getting past their differences. … We're a pilgrim people, and we have to journey on together."
Gina Christian of OSV News and Malea Hargett contributed to this article.
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