Beginning mid-May, a week full of commemorative events helped the people of Joplin and the world remember and honor the events of May 22, 2011. A year after a devastating tornado ripped through the southwest Missouri town citizens continue to rebuild their lives and their community.
A variety of events, ranging from a half-marathon to a presidential address at Joplin High School’s commencement, were planned around the May 22 anniversary of the 2011 Joplin tornado. There were many moments that were specific to the Catholic community in Joplin in honor of the loss of St. Mary Catholic Church and School and all those affected by the storm in the parishes of St. Mary and St. Peter the Apostle Catholic Churches.
On Sat., May 19, a memorial concert featuring contemporary Christian musical artists Steve Angrisano and Tony Melendez was held in the McAuley Catholic High School gymnasium. It was a time for a little over 200 people to reflect and remember what was lost, but at the same time look forward to the continued recovery.
“Steve and Tony both delivered their performances in an interactive way for the benefit of a very enthusiastic crowd,” said Renee Motazedi, development director of the Joplin Catholic Schools (JACSS). “Many commented afterward how much Steve and Tony’s ministry meant to them on that night in their healing journey.”
More than $1,000 in proceeds from this event benefited the JACSS scholarship fund, which was established in the aftermath of the tornado in an effort to help those affected by the storm continue their Catholic education.
The huge iron cross that still stands vigil over the landscape of the former St. Mary Catholic Church in Joplin stood high above the Catholic faithful of Joplin on Tue., May 22, for a rosary that commemorated the anniversary of the events of the disastrous tornado that destroyed the church and school. The cross has remained an icon in Joplin since the storm and has become a place where people go to pray and reflect, Catholic and non-Catholic alike. It is one of the most photographed structures throughout Joplin. There are accounts of people trapped in the storm’s aftermath in their destroyed homes who could see the cross looming in the sky, which gave them hope.
The cross will remain at the site as a memorial
Students, faculty, and many staffers of JACSS as well as parishioners from St. Mary Church and St. Peter Church, and other citizens, prayed the rosary together on what was a sunny afternoon, a sharp contrast to the same day a year earlier.
The rosary was led by Sharon Reeve, a teacher at St. Mary Catholic School. She was helped by student representatives who read petitions throughout the service. Students also led the crowd in song singing “Ave Maria” and “Father We Adore You.”
“We stand on sacred ground today,” Bp. James V. Johnston said before the rosary. The bishop invited those in attendance to remember all the events that took place on this ground before the tornado: baptisms, weddings, Masses, and the learning that took place in St. Mary School. The bishop reflected that while the storm took away the physical buildings, it did not take away the church and school. The church and the school are made up of people, the bishop said—many of them there at the prayer service—therefore the church remains strong and present.
“We gather here today to acknowledge what happened a year ago that changed school and church life,” Bp. Johnston said. “But we also gather here to give thanks to the Lord for the many blessings that he has given this past year. Even out of tragedy and destruction, there is power, and the power of His love brings forth new life.”
“You have shown your true colors during the course of this year,” Bp. Johnston said, “and it is a reminder that you are the school—you are the church.”
Fr. Justin Monaghan, pastor of St. Mary Catholic Church, described what the past year has been like for the people of St. Mary’s.
“Emotionally, it has been a very difficult year,” said Fr. Monaghan, who himself rode out the 2011 tornado in the rectory bathtub. “It is tremendous what St. Peter Parish has done for us and we are grateful. However, we feel homeless, and feel like we don’t see each other anymore. We are trying to get past that and are grateful for a temporary building that is in the plans.” St. Mary Catholic Church recently moved to a temporary location at 1230 E. 7th St., Joplin.
The plans for rebuilding St. Mary are progressing. Architects are being contracted and there has been a meeting where ideas were discussed between the bishop, building coordinators, Fr. Justin, and the parish council, who comprise the building committee. The land has been purchased and construction will begin shortly. The parish hopes that the church will be completed in two years, and will know more in the near future as the plans become more concrete.
Students from St. Mary Catholic School have been having classes at a temporary location, a refurbished warehouse next to McAuley Catholic High School and St. Peter Parish. Fr. Monaghan expressed excitement for the future of St. Mary and appreciation for people from all over the diocese who have given their time and resources to be a part of the rebuilding process.
“We are very grateful for the support and feel really good at how we have stayed together in difficult circumstances,” he said.
Later that evening at Mass in St. Peter the Apostle Catholic Church. Fr. John (J.) Friedel, pastor, celebrated the liturgy and focused on the events in Joplin one year ago. He reflected that they were preparing for evening Mass just before the tornado hit a year ago. He decided after the storm to stay and have Mass with those people who also wanted to stay.
“We gather on the anniversary that changed our lives as people of faith,” Fr. Friedel said in his homily. “We stayed that night to pray, we have prayed throughout the year, and tonight we will continue to pray.” He spoke of how the storm that night affected their parish family and encouraged the congregation to “pray for each other, that we may do what God calls us to do until we are called from this world to the next.”
Throughout the events and various speeches surrounding the anniversary of the tornado that changed a city and a community forever, the resounding message was one of pride for what the people of Joplin have accomplished in the face of this adversity despite their grief. The people tearfully acknowledge what they have lost, for example, 161 of their neighbors who perished in the storm. However, much like St. Mary’s cross that couldn’t be destroyed, Joplin heralds hope and resiliency and is still standing: The damaged buildings and city are being rebuilt and a loving community looks with hope toward the future.