Tornadoes strike communities; lives, Catholic facilities spared

By: By Tom Dermody

STREATOR — Msgr. John Prendergast said nearly everyone who came to a Red Cross Relief Center set up at St. Stephen’s gym and cafeteria after a tornado ravaged the nearby neighborhood last Saturday night shared a similar thought: “Thank God I’m alive.”

“Anything after that, everyone realized, is all a blessing,” said Msgr. Prendergast, pastor of the Streator Catholic Community.

Sentiments of relief and gratitude — as well as charitable actions — were shared in several communities of the Diocese of Peoria hit by a series of twisters that moved through north central Illinois last Saturday evening.

“It’s impacted everyone in the town,” said Father Paul Steine, IC, pastor of St. Patrick’s Parish in Elmwood, of the devastation in that city’s downtown from a tornado the same evening. But while damage to businesses — including city hall — was great, there were no injuries reported in Elmwood. About 50 people reportedly huddled in the Palace Theater as the twister roared down Main Street.

Heavy damage was also reported in Dwight — especially to a trailer community — but in all affected communities, Catholic facilities were pretty much outside the tornadoes’ paths.
But not by much.

St. Stephen’s Church in Streator was “right next to the devastation,” said Msgr. Prendergast, who was across town at Immaculate Conception rectory when the storm hit around 9 p.m.

“I was watching TV,” he recalled. When an emergency message was transmitted on the channel by a voice Msgr. Prendergast recognized, he took his pet dog and cat and headed for the basement.

Within an hour, he received a call asking him to open St. Stephen’s as an emergency shelter.

“We opened up and it was used all night,” said Msgr. Prendergast, a Streator native who was raised near the affected neighborhood. Some families and children walked to St. Stephen’s in their pajamas because “everything was gone” at their homes.

When daylight came and the extent of the devastation was clear on the community’s south side, “it was pretty frightening,” said the pastor. “The shock hit everybody. It’s unbelievable no one was killed.”

St. Stephen’s Social Hall continued to serve as an emergency center at midweek, providing a place where meals are provided to the hundreds of workers volunteering with clean-up.

In what he described as “a beautiful sign of faith,” the Streator Catholic Community is now identifying those who need aid and “we’re helping as we can.” Teachers are providing child care at St. Stephens as parents seek insurance information.

Msgr. Prendergast said the tornado did knock down about 40 tombstones at old St. Stephen’s Cemetery, and also reduced a large oak tree to just a trunk.

Meanwhile, Dorothy Naumann, secretary at St. Patrick’s Parish in Elmwood, saw the tornado form from her home in nearby Yates City.

“I stood at my back door and watched it go north of me.”

St. Patrick’s Church, which is on the west side of Elmwood, is about eight blocks from the affected downtown area. The parish did have Mass on Sunday, but it was sparsely attended as travel in the community was restricted.

But while parish life has not been affected, community life has.

“Everyone’s concerned about the community,” said Naumann, adding her son and daughter-in-law have been very involved in clean-up efforts.
Elmwood is “a very close group,” she said.

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