Prayers, labor, financial aid offered in wake of tornadoes

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 Archbishop George J. Lucas and Catholic Charities, offered prayers, labor and financial help to Pilger – the hardest-hit area with two dead and dozens injured – and other nearby communities.

“We’re all praying for them,” said Father Jerry Connealy, pastor of St. Peter Parish in Stanton, whose members include residents of Pilger.

“We offered prayers for them at Mass, and we’ll continue doing that,” Father Connealy said.

St. Peter will have a special collection to help restore Pilger. The money raised will be used to aid anyone affected, not just Catholics, Father Connealy said.

He said he plans to meet with the parish council to talk about further ways to help. “We’re just going to try to help with whatever is needed.”

A Catholic Charities representative and priests throughout the archdiocese called and offered their prayers and support, including Archbishop Lucas, Father Connealy said.

Catholic Charities announced on its website that it’s accepting monetary donations through a disaster relief fund to address the emotional, mental and physical needs of victims in the Pilger, Stanton and Wisner communities.

People can donate by visiting ccomaha.org and clicking on “Catholic Charities Disaster Relief Fund.”

“Those funds will be directly routed to the communities that were affected,” said Emily Cunningham Kozlik, development director of Catholic Charities.  

Parishioners from St. Mary Parish in West Point, including some who work in Pilger, went there to help, said Father Gerald Gonderinger, pastor of St. Mary, St. Aloysius Parish in Aloys, St. Boniface Parish in Monterey and St. Anthony Parish in St. Charles Township.

Volunteers poured in from neighboring towns and states to help the devastated residents.  Emergency workers asked people to stay out of Pilger the day after two tornadoes hit the town, but they had plenty of work at other locations affected by the storms 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.

According to Facebook posts she read, Peatrowsky said community clean-up efforts were underway on both farms Monday evening and Tuesday morning.

“Farmers come together and help each other out,” said Peatrowsky, a member of St. John the Baptist Parish.

Although Wayne was largely spared in 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 east were impacted, said Father Mark Beran, pastor of St. Mary.

Helping with two St. Mary staff members in the clean-up efforts at one heavily damaged home in Wakefield, Father Beran said he was inspired by the family, who didn’t come up from their basement after the storm until they finished praying the rosary with their children.  

Family members told him how grateful they were for the volunteers who helped clean up and how overwhelmed they felt about the goodness of people, “which is a representation of how good God is to us,” Father Beran said.

And just as nearby communities rallied to Wayne’s aid last October when a tornado tore through the southeastern portion of the city and destroyed dozens of homes, business and farm property and other structures, Wayne is reaching out to its neighbors in their time of need with a hot dog and hamburger feed fundraiser June 18, Father Beran said.

“It really brings out the best in people,” he said.

Alan Harms, of St. Joseph Parish in Wisner, was out the morning after the tornadoes to help two fellow parish families on farms outside Wisner. “One lost absolutely everything,” he said.

The other farm belonged to Bonnie and Del Styskal, whose house was damaged and all their outbuildings were destroyed.

Bonnie Styskal took in all the devastation the next day: a house with no electricity, part of the roof missing and battered windows and siding; a shed and two barns flattened; vehicles damaged; and dead cattle, horses, pigs and a dog.

At her husband’s workplace, a feedlot two miles north of their home, an entire herd – hundreds of cattle – died or had to be destroyed.

Yet she had to be thankful, she said.

People showed up with food, drinks, gloves and other supplies, Styskal said.

“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, she said. They heard debris flying, but the tornado seemed to pass quickly, Styskal said.

Then they went outside to see the destroyed buildings, stripped trees and downed power lines.

Another son, Dustin, 22, was in Lincoln at the time. And their 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 weren’t as fortunate. People like Harms, and his wife, Sally, spent the following day helping people in need.

Harms said he saw people from Fremont, Iowa and South Dakota arriving to help.

“You don’t have to know anyone,” he said. “You just show up and pitch in.”



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