WISNER, Nebraska — Catholics were quick to respond to deadly tornadoes that shredded homes, farms, buildings and power lines in northeast Nebraska June 16.
People from throughout the Archdiocese of Omaha, including parishioners, priests and Archbishop George J. Lucas, offered prayers, labor and financial help to the village of Pilger, about 90 miles northwest of Omaha. Pilger was the hardest-hit community with two dead and dozens injured.
“We’re all praying for them,” said Fr. Jerry Connealy, pastor of St. Peter Parish in nearby Stanton, whose members include residents of Pilger. “We offered prayers for them at Mass, and we’ll continue doing that.”
St. Peter will have a special collection for residents of Pilger. “We’re just going to try to help with whatever is needed,” the priest said.
A representative of Catholic Charities of Omaha and priests throughout the archdiocese, including Archbishop Lucas, called to offer prayers and support, Fr. Connealy said.
Catholic Charities announced on its website that it was accepting monetary donations for its disaster relief fund to address the emotional, mental and physical needs of victims in the towns of Pilger, Stanton and Wisner.
Parishioners from St. Mary Parish in West Point, including some who work in Pilger, traveled to the village to help, said Fr. Gerald Gonderinger, pastor.
Volunteers also poured in from neighboring towns and states to help the devastated communities. While emergency workers asked people to stay out of Pilger immediately after the pair of tornadoes hit the town, volunteers had plenty of work at other locations in Stanton, Wayne, Cuming, Thurston and Dakota counties.
Farms belonging to members of Sacred Heart Parish in Emerson and St. John the Baptist Parish in Pender were damaged, said Sonya Peatrowsky, secretary for both parishes.
“Farmers come together and help each other out,” Peatrowsky said.
Although the town of Wayne was largely spared by the storms, some members of St. Mary Parish in Wayne and Sacred Heart Parish who live in the Wakefield area about 10 miles to the northeast were affected, said Fr. Mark Beran, St. Mary pastor.
Working with two St. Mary staff members at one heavily damaged home in Wakefield, Fr. Beran said he was inspired by the family, who did not emerge from their basement after the storm until they finished praying the rosary with their children.
Just as nearby communities rallied to Wayne’s aid last October when a tornado tore through the southeastern portion of the city, Wayne residents reached out to their neighbors, planning a hot dog and hamburger fundraiser June 18, Fr. Beran said.
Alan Harms, a member of St. Joseph Parish in Wisner, was out the morning after the storms to help two fellow parish families on farms outside of town. “One lost absolutely everything,” he said.
The other farm belonged to Bonnie and Del Styskal, whose house was severely damaged, and outbuildings were destroyed while cattle, horses, pigs and a dog were killed. Bonnie Styskal said that at her husband’s workplace, a feedlot two miles north of their home, a herd of thousands of cattle died or had to be destroyed.
“Yes, it’s bad,” Styskal said. “But you drive a quarter of a mile, and there’s no homes. I just thank God we’re all safe, and we have our belongings. And I thank God for all our good friends and family who’ve helped.”
Styskal was in the basement with her youngest child, Trevor, 12, just before the tornado hit.
“My husband came from work, and said, ‘It’s coming our way,'” she said. They looked out a window, saw the twister and took shelter in a bathroom shower. They heard debris flying, but the tornado seemed to pass quickly.
Another son, Dustin, 22, was in Lincoln at the time. Daughter, Erica, 19, was in Wayne, where she works and is a student at Wayne State College. They returned home to help, and were joined by aunts, uncles, cousins and a grandparent, some from hundreds of miles away.
The tornado veered north of Wisner, but rural residents and those in Pilger were not as fortunate. People such as Harms, and his wife Sally spent the following day helping people in need.
“You don’t have to know anyone,” he said. “You just show up and pitch in.”