Local deacons serve as bridges in wake of tornado, floods


Bishop W. Shawn McKnight once wrote that deacons “should work to connect the people of God with their local leader, the bishop, and the Church with the needs of the poor ... drawing Church leaders, ordinary believers, and people on the margins of society closer together.”

Recent natural disasters have affirmed for several deacons of this diocese the crucial role they bear in building bridges among God’s people.

To be and to do

Deacon Kenny Wildhaber of Immaculate Conception parish in Jefferson City ventured out with his pastor, Father Donald Antweiler, to check on parishioners the morning after an EF-3 tornado wrought havoc on a neighborhood not far from church.

“I think our just being present was the most important thing, but we were able to help clear the debris out of a yard of a family that had their roof destroyed,” said Deacon Wildhaber.

Walking down the affected blocks of Capital Avenue, the priest and deacon saw hundreds of people who were busy and in shock.

“A lot of them didn’t know what to do, but they wanted to be doing something,” the deacon observed.

He said it felt good to pitch in and get his hands dirty.

“Anytime I get into a situation like that, I feel the need to do something, to get something going,” he said.

Six years after being ordained a deacon, he has found he no longer has to remind himself very often that he’s ministering not just as a Christian but as an official agent of the Church.

“I don’t do things so much because I’m a deacon anymore,” he said. “I do them because it’s just part of who I am now.”

He paused and added: “The Holy Spirit was put upon me, and It’s doing It’s job. I just hope I’m doing mine.”

Work side-by-side

“It started with an innocent question, and we ended up having a good time with some people we had never met before,” said Deacon Ed Stroesser of St. Andrew parish in Holts Summit.

After Saturday evening Mass a few days following the May 22 tornado, he asked some parishioners how they had weathered the stormy blast.

They told him there were many trees down and that their yard was full of debris.

The following Monday, Memorial Day, Deacon Stroesser, his wife Valda, his nephew Michael and a few friends with chainsaws arrived at the parishioners’ yard.

Volunteers from Samaritan’s Purse, a U.S.-based Christian organization that helps people who are suffering all over the world, were already there, hard at work.

“There were about 10 of them, but there was plenty of work to do, so we joined in,” he said.

Together, they cut up about 10 felled trees and carried the wood to the curb.

He was pleased to be able to help solidify a bond between people in need and their parish, not just as a fellow Christian but also as “Deacon Ed.”

“Whenever I see them at church, they’re still so thankful,” he said.

He said many deacons can do things like that in addition to assisting at the altar.

“We have the time, we have the resources, we can get people together to go help people,” he said.

He noted that Mrs. Stroesser heading out with him was emblematic of the “sacrificial giving” Bishop McKnight referred to the first time he addressed this diocese’s deacons and their wives.

“Your husbands could not do what they do as deacons without your help and support,” the bishop told the wives, “and for that, I am grateful.”

On-the-job training

Reminiscent of what Bishop McKnight told the deacons’ wives about “sometimes hopefully pushing him out the door to do the Lord’s work,” Deacon Ric Telthorst of St. Peter parish in Jefferson City went with his wife Mary, to a Multi-Agency Resource Center (MARC) event in Eldon.

“It was a very meaningful ministry to have shared in,” he said. “And I tell you, it was both a humbling and a rewarding experience.”

That Miller County locale near the Lake of the Ozarks had been hit hard by the same tornado that ravaged parts of Jefferson City.

The St. Peter parish conference of the St. Vincent de Paul Society was one of many local relief agencies that took part in the Eldon MARC, which was organized by the United Way, the American Red Cross, and Catholic Charities of Central and Northern Missouri.

The purpose was to bring together as many resources as possible in a place where everyone who needed help could get to it.

Mrs. Telthorst, a registered nurse, is active in the St. Vincent de Paul Society (SVdP).

“She is the public health specialist,” Deacon Telthorst noted. “So in a situation like this, she is the professional and I’m the volunteer.”

He learned by watching her.

“I really leaned on her for guidance,” he said. “She pretty much trained me on the job in terms of how to handle the situation and what to ask.”

Local SVdP members and some from St. Louis interviewed, distributed gift cards to and even prayed with people who had lost their homes and every other earthly belonging.

“We had some resources on hand to help people with their immediate needs like clothes and groceries,” Deacon Telthorst said. “And we took down a lot of information about what their other needs are so we could get back in touch with them and assist in any way we can.”

He was amazed at how grateful people were for even the slightest bit of help.

“I saw people who were so gracious about their situation and resilient in the face of the incredible crisis they were facing,” he said.

Many were happy to be able to put what they were experiencing into words.

“We shared a lot of stories, a lot of tears and a lot prayers,” he said.

To many, those prayers were as important as the monetary assistance.

“People were very hungry for prayer, hungry to connect with us and with God about their situation,” he said.

A few people assumed they were not eligible for assistance from a Catholic agency because they weren’t Catholic.

“We had to tell them, ‘It’s all right! We’re going to help you no matter what,’” he said.

It reinforced for him the need to always be ready to meet people where they are, reach out in compassion and help them.

“God puts you in places where ministry needs to happen, and you don’t always get the opportunity to prepare for it,” he noted.

“We have hope”

Other deacons have also had occasion to build bridges.

Among them is Deacon Brad Jones of St. Martin parish in St. Martins, who has been volunteering at Catholic Charities on Wednesday afternoons, entering data from people who need long-term assistance because of flooding or the tornado.

Deacon Ray Purvis of Immaculate Conception parish in Jefferson City, coordinator of diaconate formation for the diocese, helped at a MARC in Jefferson City.

“It was a very touching experience with those in need and working alongside the many who came out to help,” he said.

Turning to prayer, Deacon Wildhaber suggested asking God to give people hope and acceptance as the floodwaters recede and the tornado damage gets assessed.

“These things are a part of nature, not part of some divine plan to hurt people or make them suffer,” he asserted.

“We have hope in Jesus Christ,” he said. “We have hope that things are going to work out. And most of the time, things eventually do turn around and work out for the better.”