Throughout the tornado-damaged Ramblewood neighborhood in Elkhorn, residents have expressed their gratitude to volunteers, like those from St. Patrick Parish in Elkhorn. SUSAN SZALEWSKI/STAFF

Living Mercy

Elkhorn parish becomes Christ for tornado victims

A week after a tornado ripped through Elkhorn, Erin Keller and a team of volunteers walked through portions of the hard-hit Ramblewood neighborhood.

Many homes were toppled and most trees left standing were stripped of leaves and branches, looking like skeletons.

For most on the street ministry team from St. Patrick Parish in Elkhorn, it wasn’t their first venture into the neighborhood after the April 26 tornado.

Wherever the volunteers found people in need, they offered help: gift cards, cleanup equipment, assistance finding new housing, cautions on possible scams – but also prayers, hugs and shoulders to cry on.

Inside one house that was damaged but inhabitable, Keller prayed with a woman who said she felt “emotionally wrought” after all she had been through. Besides the tornado, she’d been grappling with cancer and was scheduled for reconstructive surgery in a few days.

While praying with Keller, the woman asked God: “Why?” Why would He allow so many bad things to happen?

Keller – faith formation director at St. Patrick – assured the woman that she was not alone in her struggles, that God was with her and protecting her during the tornado, that He will continue to be with her. Keller assured her that she would be there, too, weeks, months and even years later.

“I have a feeling we’re going to be friends for a long time,” she said about the woman.

Keller and other volunteers who’ve met personally with tornado victims have been the Face of God for them.

Supporting those volunteers is the rest of the Body of Christ: the donors and other volunteers working behind the scenes as part of St. Patrick’s relief efforts. So far, 140 individuals or families have applied to the parish for help.

Before reaching out to tornado victims, a street ministry team from St. Patrick Parish in Elkhorn prays before a statue of Mary outside St. Patrick Church. From left are Father Mario Rapose from St. Pius X Parish in Omaha, Jim Greufe and Erin Keller, both of St. Patrick Parish, and Amy and Jeff Gromowsky of St. Charles Borromeo Parish in Gretna. SUSAN SZALEWSKI/STAFF

A core group of about 225 volunteers has been involved in the massive assistance project, distributing more than $300,000 in donations that have poured into the parish.

With the donations and manpower, St. Patrick has been able to connect tornado victims with the community resources they need, including emotional support, dumpsters, portable restrooms, storage units, toys for impacted children and gift bags for teens.

As many as 100 of the volunteers participate in daily Zoom calls to coordinate their work. In a recent online meeting, they learned that in just one weekend a team dedicated to finding transportation for tornado victims connected six families with vehicles.

Another team got about the business of writing thank-you notes to donors. Father Tom Fangman, pastor of St. Patrick, was part of that effort.

Amanda Pfeifer – faith formation minister at St. Patrick and head of its human needs committee – credited the Holy Spirit for putting everything and everyone in place to help people in dire need.

“It’s just His work,” she said, “and us being obedient to Him.”

Father Fangman has seen the devastation in his community.

“They need hope,” he said,  “and that’s what we’re trying to bring. Blue skies shall come. That’s the power of the Resurrection that is rippling and reflected and received.”

Throughout the Rambleridge neighborhood of Elkhorn, residents expressed their gratitude to helpers, despite the losses they suffered. SUSAN SZALEWSKI/STAFF

He praised the work of his parishioners and volunteers from other parishes who have joined the effort.

“I’m in awe of it all,” he said. “It is just unreal. But I shouldn’t be surprised because God does that when we let God do what only God can do. He brings it about, especially when we cooperate.”

Mandy Busch, pastoral care minister at St. Patrick, agreed.

“It’s been amazing to watch what has been accomplished in a short amount of time,” she said.

In the first few days after the tornado, one survivor had a simple request: chicken nuggets.

“We had a volunteer get chicken nuggets to her house immediately, and she cried because it was like her comfort food,” Busch said.

The parish has also extended its care to victims outside the parish boundaries, too, in places like Bennington and Washington County. It is covering needs not met by government agencies, which have referred people to St. Patrick for help.

According to the Douglas County Emergency Management Agency, 909 homes were damaged in the county, mostly in Elkhorn. Of the damaged homes, 182 were completely destroyed.

Each individual or family who applies for help at the parish is assigned a care manager – a one-person point of contact to minister to specific needs. The care managers then turn to parish resource teams specialized in things like meals, housing, insurance and more.

Street ministry teams, like Keller’s, have combed neighborhoods handing out flyers with a QR code that directs residents to an application for assistance.

The parish was ready for an emergency because it had experience in helping people after flooding in the area in 2019 and during the COVID-19 pandemic.

St. Patrick already had developed a button on its website that directed people to an application for help. Soon after the April tornado hit, they simply reactivated that tool.

Many of those impacted by the tornado have been reluctant to ask for or accept help because they want the aid to go to others worse off than them. But members of St. Patrick, a parish of more than 3,000 families – have been bent on helping everyone in need.

“Sometimes people aren’t comfortable asking,” Busch said, “and we’re saying ‘No, no, we’re here for you. We have donations. We need to give them out. And we’re here for the long run. We’re here in three months and six months and a year. When you have a need, we have resources.’” 

Volunteers from other parishes have joined in St. Patrick’s relief effort, including Amy and Jeff Gromowsky of St. Charles Borromeo Parish in Gretna and Father Mario Rapose from St. Pius X Parish in Omaha.

A street ministry team from St. Patrick Parish in Elkhorn meets and plans before they begin their work. From left are Jim Greufe of St. Patrick, Father Mario Rapose from St. Pius X in Omaha, Amy and Jeff Gromowsky of St. Charles Borromeo Parish in Gretna and Erin Keller, faith formation director at St. Patrick. SUSAN SZALEWSKI/STAFF

The Gromowskys and Father Rapose were part of a team of six street ministers that reached out to residents of the Ramblewood neighborhood with Keller a week after the tornado. Most of them had already been there, ministering in the first few days after the tornado.

For Amy Gromowsky, her visits were a “chance to be the Face of Christ, to be His instruments” for those suffering and traumatized by the tornado. She wanted to be able to say, “We’re here for you. Your community is here for you.”

The residents have been especially grateful to see priests like Father Rapose reaching out, Busch said.

“He was in his collar,” she said, “and just to see people respond to him with such gratitude and warmth. We got a message that one of the people he prayed with just sobbed because it was like God showing up in the mess.”

“He likes to be with the people on the street,” Busch said, “just being that presence of God in the neighborhoods.”

This weekend Archbishop George J. Lucas will spend time and pray with those affected by the tornado and with volunteers. He will celebrate two Masses at St. Patrick, at 9:30 and 11 a.m. on Sunday, May 19, Pentecost.

In reaching out to tornado victims, different organizations within St. Patrick have collaborated. Particularly helpful has been a long-established, close coordination between the parish’s human needs committee and its St. Vincent de Paul chapter.

“We are really blessed at St. Pat’s,” Pfeifer said. “As part of our human needs committee, we work hand in hand with our St. Vincent de Paul chapter. … It is a beautiful, beautiful working relationship that we have.”

Interdenominational relationships are being built as well, as St. Patrick works with Protestant churches and organizations in delivering aid.

Some neighboring churches have collected donations for tornado survivors or provided meals for the hard-hit residents and volunteers. In at least one case, an impromptu meal in an area of devastation became a chance for a Protestant group to “break bread” with St. Patrick volunteers.

A set of three crosses carved from a tree stump sparked a conversation with the volunteer who created the image, Gary Wilkins. Wilkins and his wife, Lacey, live in Mississippi and were in town to assist with tornado recovery.


They are missionaries with a nondenominational organization called Eight Days of Hope. The couple travels around the country and the world to assist people in times of disaster and need.

Gary Wilkins said he carved the image in front of the home of a teacher and single mother. Earlier he had visited and prayed with her.

When she looked down from an upstairs window and first saw the three crosses, she cried, Wilkins said.

The volunteers are blessed when they help, Pfeifer said.

“Miracles have abounded,” she said. “Parishioners are telling me that they are hearing the Lord’s voice, they’re being obedient.”

“They are experiencing Jesus in all of it. So while we are pouring ourselves out and giving to our neighbors in need, the Lord is also revealing Himself in a profound way to the individuals that He has called to be part of this. And it’s beautiful.”

“I had a friend reach out to me,” Pfeifer said, “and she said, ‘I’ve struggled with my faith for the last two and a half years. I don’t know why, but I’ve just had on my heart wanting to help and be part of this over the last week, and it won’t go away.’”

The friend became a family’s care manager. She later told Pfeifer that “in the last 12 hours, I have experienced Jesus more than I have in the last two years.’”

“It is all the work of the Holy Spirit,” Pfeifer said. “It is all about the Body of Christ being mobilized and at work.

“I kind of chuckled … when I heard the National Guard has been mobilized and is coming to help. I’m thinking the Body of Christ has been doing this work” from the start, she said, “God’s people doing things these national agencies will never do.

“Because you can’t beat a warm heart, and faith, and phone calls reassuring somebody, telling them that you’re not alone. I am in this with you. We’re going to be beside you every step of the way.”


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