By Gina Christian
(OSV News) — Katelee Hagan imagined Jan. 14 would be just another ordinary day at the Selma, Alabama, child care center where she works.
But moments after the 21-year-old walked through the doors, a colleague told her, “We’ve got to go. A tornado is heading straight for us.”
Hagan, a member of Our Lady Queen of Peace Parish in Selma, began bundling up the eight babies at the center, part of Crosspoint Christian Church. Along with her coworkers and some 70 kids, ranging in age from seven weeks to four years old, she hunkered down in a concrete area of the building.
“We were all praying, just continuously praying. All of us,” Hagan told OSV news.
Ten minutes later, “the lights went out, and you could hear a noise like a train,” she said.
Striking the building, the tornado sent air pressure plummeting, leaving Hagan breathless as she and her coworkers flung themselves over the children.
Having survived, Hagan, and other Catholics in Alabama are turning to prayer and outreach after the Jan. 14 disaster, during which nine tornadoes killed nine people as they tore across Georgia and Alabama, including the historic town of Selma, from which Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led an historic 1965 civil rights march. The deadliest tornado claimed seven lives in Alabama’s Autauga County while notching 150 mile-per-hour winds and traveling 76 miles, according to the National Weather Service.
“The tornado was absolutely devastating in the city of Selma,” Chad McEachern, president and CEO of the Edmundite Missions, told OSV News in a Jan. 16 email. “Homes ripped apart, roofs strewn into the street, trees predating our nation’s founding ripped up by the roots.”
Founded in 1937 by two Society of St. Edmund priests, the Selma-based missions serve the area’s most impoverished communities by providing meals, education, youth and senior services.
After the fierce winds left streets “war torn,” McEachern said he “firmly grasped (his) rosary beads” and began walking “block by block, checking those entrusted to the care of the (Edmundite) Missions.”
The seven Dominican nuns at the Monastery of St. Jude in Marbury, Alabama, also turned to prayer as one tornado came within three miles of their community.
“Typically, in the face of a storm, we light a blessed candle and pray hard,” the nuns said in a Jan. 17 email to OSV News. “We pray not only for our own safety, but for all in the path of the storm.”
The nuns also took shelter as alarms sounded, noting that “with today’s alert systems, it is possible to know clearly when we need to gather the sisters in the safest location.”
The monastery and its surrounding neighborhood were spared the storms’ worst effects, the nuns said, adding their property “didn’t even experience damaging winds,” although they “did find some insulation hanging from a tree in our woods, which we presume to be debris picked up by the tornado.”
Residents of Selma were less fortunate, with the storm’s immediate effects compounded by fires from ruptured gas lines, said McEachern.
A few other parishioners of Our Lady, Queen of Peace Church also lost their homes, according to Gabe Stabosz Norton, director of religious education. The church building was spared, and the pastor’s residence sustained only minor damage, with downed trees on the property.
“Our church is located right in downtown Selma where there is a lot of damage and destruction,” Norton said. “God’s grace protected us.”
At the same time, Norton acknowledged the work left to be done. “Selma is an extremely poor area, and this tornado made a bad situation worse,” she said.
Despite the lack of power in several of its buildings, the Edmundite Missions have been able to provide food assistance, teaming up with the Selma Police Department “to deliver meals to those still trapped on their blocks by tornado debris,” said McEachern.
Mission staff and volunteers have been “distributing clothes, blankets, hygiene products, temporary housing and more to those who lost everything,” while also offering shower and laundry services, said McEachern.
In addition, the mission’s social workers have set up an office to help clients, many of whom have low levels of literacy, complete online federal assistance applications, he said.
One man —- whose granddaughter had been with family elsewhere in the state during the storms — came to the missions to advise his shack had been “completely destroyed,” McEachern said. The storm had thrown the man into a tree, to which he clung until the winds subsided. The mission is “committed to helping (him), and many more just like him, rebuild their lives after this disaster,” McEachern said.
The Dominican nuns also plan to continue interceding for storm victims, particularly in praying for them through the rosary and Eucharistic adoration.
“We have been praying for all those affected: those who died and for their families, those who were injured or whose homes were destroyed, and for all those who are helping them,” they said.
Although the tornado badly damaged the Selma child care center, Hagan said, none of the children or teachers were injured. She added surviving the experience “has definitely changed (her) faith in God.”
“I had pulled away from the church,” Hagan said. “But there was no way that storm just picked itself up and moved away from us in the center.”
Gina Christian is a national reporter for OSV News.