House blessings a happy duty year after Washington tornado

By: By Tom Dermody

EDITOR’S NOTE: One year after an EF4 tornado devastated their community and parish, Father Stephen Willard and Father Julius Turyatoranwa of St. Patrick Parish in Washington are enjoying the happy task of blessing the rebuilt homes of dozens of parishioners.

The Catholic Post accompanied the priests on three home visits on Nov. 14. We are grateful to the Walsh, Biagini, and Doolan families for sharing their experiences — and faith — with us. In the photo above, Father Willard and Father Turyatoranwa pray over members of the Biagini family during the blessing of their new home at 617 Simon St.

Here are brief summaries of their stories. For more photos, see our Facebook page. See also a related story on observances of the one-year anniversary here.

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MOM’S CCD LESSON PUT TO TEST ON MORNING OF TWISTER

WASHINGTON — On the morning of Nov. 17, 2013, Barbara Walsh taught her CCD class after 8:30 a.m. Mass at St. Patrick Parish that “faith is not just about believing in God when things are going well, it’s about having faith and being strong when things aren’t going well.”

Minutes after class dismissed, things went horribly wrong in Washington.

As Barbara and her daughter Katherine were driving home from the church, an EF4 tornado was devastating their neighborhood and the home the Walshes had moved into at 1209 Belford Court just three months before.

Her husband Miles, a policeman, and son Sean were in that house.

“We couldn’t even find the house,” Barbara said, recalling the harrowing scene of her neighborhood reduced to rubble just moments earlier. Katherine jumped out of the car blocks away. They soon saw Sean with no shoes or socks on, shivering on the driveway of their demolished home.

“It’s Mommy and Sissy, we’re coming, we’re coming Sean,” Barbara yelled.
They soon learned that Alan was nearby on his squad car radio.

A teenage neighbor, Sam Cole, took the shoes off his own feet and gave them to Sean. It was the first in what would be a long string of acts of kindness from persons near and far.

“”That was the first sign that I knew everything would be OK,” said Barbara. “When that happened, well, if that isn’t Christ, I don’t know what is.”

A widow in the community would soon give up her home so the Walshes could move in.

“She was a stranger to us. We didn’t know her before this happened,” said Barbara. The family returned to their rebuilt home, on which Miles was the general contractor, last weekend — exactly one year after the tornado.

The Walshes would live Barbara’s CCD lesson the next 12 months. Did the experiences strengthen their faith?

“Absolutely,” said Barbara.

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WASHINGTON — Something led Josh Biagini to the window of a second-floor bedroom where he was working on Christmas lists with his sister, Emmy.

His mother Lori, secretary at St. Patrick School, says it was God.

“I call it ADD,” said Josh, a St. Patrick student, with a smile.

That glance out the window, during which Josh saw the approaching tornado, may have saved lives.

The siblings alerted their parents and all made it to a downstairs bathroom just as the tornado hit, ripping their home apart.

“Alan just shut the door and we could hear the glass break,” said Lori of her husband. “A few seconds later you could tell it was right over us.” The family did not have time to herd one of the two family dogs — a German shepherd named Apollo — into the safety of the bathroom. He was found in rubble across the street.

All the tornado left of the Biagini home at 617 Simon St. was the basement bathroom, a nearby bar that Alan had built, and part of the upstairs kitchen. The bar is part of the family’s new home, which they built on the old foundation and moved into on Oct. 31. It was blessed by parish priests last Friday.

The Biaginis spent much of this year in the home of a parishioner’s grandmother who had just gone into assisted living.

Lori teared up as she reflected on the journey of the past year.

“A lot of it is, the things that are so easy to replace,” she told The Catholic Post, expressing gratitude for supplies found at the parish relief center in the school gymnasium that “was like walking into a Wal-Mart.”

“But these, you know,” she added, her voice trailing as she looked at her three children (also including son Garrett). “I’m thankful that’s the only stuff we need to replace.”

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COUPLE MORE AWARE OF HOW SHORT, PRECIOUS LIFE IS

WASHINGTON — After attending early morning Mass on Nov. 17, 2013, Denny Doolan went to Peoria to do some shopping and his wife of 45 years, Beth, put on her pajamas and went back to bed.

When the tornado sirens went off just before 11, Beth thought “Oh, whatever.”

Then she heard the tell-tale sound “like a train coming.”

She was halfway down the basement steps of Doolan’s side of the duplex at 1415 Flossmoor when the steps started swaying. “Lord, please let me get to the bottom,” she prayed.

After poles she grasped were ripped out of her hand, she pressed her body up against the foundation and “prayed like I never prayed before.” The duplex collapsed, her car fell into the basement just feet from where she stood, but she was OK. In fact, she had a cellphone in her hand.

She called Denny. “I’m going to stay right here till you get home,” she said.

And though he arrived before the official first responders, Beth’s plan didn’t work. There was gas coming from the water heater, and a neighbor came to pull her out.

The Doolans would soon learn that their son, five houses down, also lost everything, as did their son’s father-in-law. “A good chunk of our family could have been wiped out,” said Beth.

As their home was being blessed, Denny showed the parish priests a crucifix that formerly hung in his parent’s bedroom and now does in theirs. It was found in the rubble, but was missing one of Jesus’ arms. They found the arm five months later in the back yard. A little discolored, it has been lovingly reattached.

“I can’t say enough about the support,” said Beth, especially citing college students who assisted including a group from the Newman Centers at Eureka College and Western Illinois University.

On her birthday this year Beth received a card from her husband with a note, “I’m so happy that you’re here to celebrate another birthday”

“We’re more aware of how short life is and how precious it is,” she said.

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