AUSTIN, Texas — The Burton family from Lake Charles, Louisiana, were on the way home from a New Mexico skiing vacation when the worst winter storm in recent Texas history brought the state to a perpetual halt.
They kept track of the worst-hit regions and avoided Amarillo and Austin. Then Feb. 17, as many Texans huddled in their homes without electricity and water, the Burtons — Charles and Aunjelle and their two teenage nieces — stood stranded in the parking lot of a closed gas station.
“We were on fumes. We’d tried gas stations in Gatesville and Temple. No one was open. We couldn’t find a hotel room,” Charles told the Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Diocese of Austin.
As an emergency worker at his Catholic parish in Louisiana, Charles knew he was down to one option. He dialed 911. “We were directed to go to St. Mary’s, which was just a mile and a half away. What a coincidence,” he said.
Earlier that day at the request of the Texas city of Temple, Father Kurtis Wiedenfeld and parish volunteers had hurriedly organized and opened a warming center at St. Mary Parish. As conditions worsened and snow blanketed Texas, thousands lost electricity and many lost water. Thankfully, the parish’s power held strong.
Soon, the Burtons were in a warm reception hall sharing a meal. They slept on cots along with others from central Texas who were driven to the church by police officers. They met others seeking shelter; they found fellowship. All received respite from the gripping cold.
“I could not have planned it any better,” Charles said. “When I put my head to rest and said my prayers, I thanked God for St. Mary’s. In time of need, God provided us his church.”
Stories similar to the Burtons’ experience were repeated throughout the state as many desperate Texans were stranded in their own homes without power and water.
The Catholic Charities of Central Texas disaster response team was activated and set up a disaster hotline. Short-term assistance included financial help with hotels for families displaced by the winter storm. Also, financial assistance was available for rent and utility bills due to loss of income resulting from the storm.
Help with home repairs also was being made available in coordination with long-term recovery committees formed by local governments.
The Society of St. Vincent de Paul opened its food pantry at the Vincentian Family Center in Austin. Volunteers distributed several pallets of emergency food boxes to families in need.
On Ash Wednesday, Feb. 17, as a thick layer of ice and snow covered the roads, Austin Bishop Joe S. Vásquez dispensed Catholics from the obligation to fast and abstain from eating meat that day, the start of Lent. He also dispensed the faithful from abstaining from meat on the first Friday of Lent.
Making the safety of parishioners and church staff a priority, Bishop Vásquez gave pastors the authority to use their judgment for celebrating Masses and distributing ashes.
On the diocesan website, the bishop asked for prayers for all who suffering because of the winter storm.
“Let us pray for those who are suffering in the cold and, if possible, let us offer support where we can,” Bishop Vásquez said. “Let us turn to God, knowing that God will never leave us to face our challenges alone.”
Father James Misko, vicar general of the Diocese of Austin, confirmed that at least 15 parishes in the diocese had suffered some sort of property damage.
According to Facebook posts, water poured into the sanctuaries of St. Albert the Great Parish in Austin, St. Jerome Parish in Waco and Santa Cruz Parish in Buda. Other parishes saw damage due to burst pipes in rectories, administration buildings and parish halls.
As the extent of losses was still being totaled, parishes rebounded and most were able to celebrate Masses for the first Sunday of Lent in temporary locations. Some parishes immediately began cleaning up thanks to the generous outpouring of help from parishioners.
However, the long-term effects of the winter storm will be felt for months in some parishes, Father Misko said.
The Burtons are forever grateful for the hospitality offered to them in their time of need.
“We’ll never forget St. Mary’s and the wonderful people. We sent photos to our parents back home to show them we were safe,” Charles said.
Madalene Parker, the administrative assistant at St. Mary Parish in Temple, said during the busiest times of the day, 50 to 60 people visited the warming center. Two dozen spent the night. The warming center was opened four days. The local Walmart donated sandwiches, chips and drinks. Churches Touching Lives for Christ food pantry also donated food and toiletries.
“It was truly a beautiful thing to see as we were coming into Lent when we give up things and make sacrifices,” Father Wiedenfeld told the Catholic Spirit.
“I’m very proud of our parishioners and great volunteers,” he said. “I definitely saw the spirit and love to help others. It was an opportunity for them to be like Christ. This was only possible with what God gave us — the electricity and power to make it happen.”
The author, Ricardo Gandara, is a correspondent for the Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Diocese of Austin.