Parishioners clear up debris after tornadoes sweep through the Midwest and South of America

Elizabeth Schmitt, who planned to get married in May at St Joseph church in Ridgway, Illinois, never imagined she would be picking up debris from the church after it was destroyed in a tornado.

Several tornadoes swept through parts of the Midwest and the South, killing at least a dozen people and injuring more than 100 in Illinois, Missouri and Tennessee.

“It gives a whole new meaning to destruction,” Schmitt said as she pulled on her gloves to continue cleaning up the church property.

The church, built in 1894, was destroyed just after 5am on Wednesday, February 29.

Now she doesn’t know where her wedding will take place. “This is where all of our family members were married,” she said as she looked around at the devastation.

The governors of Missouri and Illinois have both declared a state of emergency.

Susamma Seeley, director of disaster response for Catholic Charities Missouri, said that Catholic Charities agencies were “on standby” as they were determining the scope of damage and needs of residents.

She said a primary concern was to identify people in need in rural areas that might be forgotten and to deliver water, food or gas cards to them.

In Ridgway, parishioners and neighbors arrived early at St Joseph church to begin cleaning up. “We just don’t wait for others to help,” said parishioner and firefighter Chris Wargel. He said people from surrounding towns and parishes arrived at the church to help move pieces that had been salvaged to another building.

The church took a hard hit because it was the tallest structure in town. However, the marble altar that came from Italy managed to survive the storm. A former pastor, Mgr Joseph Lawler, said he hoped the altar could be disassembled and saved.

A Catholic Mutual insurance agent for the diocese estimated the damage at St Joseph was more than $2million.

Fr Steven Beatty, parish administrator of St Joseph, was asleep in an upstairs bedroom in the rectory next to the church when the tornado hit. He was awakened by the sound of breaking glass.

When he tried to go downstairs, his way was blocked by debris. He made it down the stairs on the banister, not realising that the huge, gothic church next door was demolished.

The priest posted a note on his front door which said: “I’m fine. I’m out checking on the neighbours.”

In a letter posted on the diocesan website, Belleville Bishop Edward Braxton asked all in the diocese to join him in “offering our prayerful support to Fr Beatty, the Christian faithful of St Joseph parish, and to all of those in the communities that have been affected by this terrible storm.”

“In time, there may be other ways, in which we can assist our sisters and brothers in St Joseph parish. I know that we will all be as generous as possible in offering assistance, if it is requested,” he added.

Fr Beatty told The Messenger newspaper that Ridgway was in better shape than neighbouring Harrisburg, where 100 people were injured and 250 to 300 homes destroyed in the community of 9,000 people.

Six people were killed in Harrisburg where winds were up to 166 mph. Three other people died in Missouri, and three died in Tennessee.

Nancy Lombard, a parishioner in Harrisburg, said her home still “looks kind of like a house” but her neighbours had hardly anything left of their homes.

“It’s all just stuff,” she said. “Everybody’s all right, and that’s the main thing. We can replace stuff.”