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Pope offers prayers for victims of flooding in Texas, Louisiana

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VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis offered his prayers for the people of Texas and Louisiana struggling to cope with the devastating impact of Hurricane Harvey and he praised all those engaged in rescuing and caring for the thousands of people forced out of their homes.

A worker helps an elderly woman from a rescue boat as it evacuates people from the floodwaters of Tropical Storm Harvey Aug. 30 in Houston. (CNS photo/Carlo Allegri, Reuters)

In a message to Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, Pope Francis asked that his “spiritual closeness and pastoral concern” be relayed to all those affected by the hurricane and flooding.

The message was sent by Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican secretary of state, and released by the Vatican Aug. 31.

“Deeply moved by the tragic loss of life and the immense material devastation that this natural catastrophe has left in its wake, he prays for the victims and their families, and for all those engaged in the vital work of relief, recovery and rebuilding,” Cardinal Parolin said.

Pope Francis, he said, “trusts that the immense and immediate needs of so many individuals and communities will continue to inspire a vast outpouring of solidarity and mutual aid in the best traditions of the nation.”

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Bishop Malooly announces collection for victims of Hurricane Harvey

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Bishop Malooly has asked all Catholic parishes in Delaware and Maryland’s Eastern Shore to take up a special collection this weekend, Sept. 2 and 3, to aid victims of Hurricane Harvey. Read more »

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Catholic groups are mobilizing to help in Hurricane Harvey’s aftermath

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Catholic News Service

Catholic dioceses and charities are quickly organizing to help in the aftermath of a Category 4 hurricane that made landfall with heavy rains and winds of 130 miles per hour late Aug. 25 into the Rockport, Texas area, northeast of Corpus Christi. The National Weather Service said in a tweet Aug. 27 that the rainfall expected after the hurricane and storm are over “are beyond anything experienced before.” The hurricane, named Harvey, is said to be the strongest one to hit the United States in more than a decade and perhaps the strongest one to make landfall in Texas.

Lisa Rehr embraces her four-year old son Maximus as they await to be evacuated Aug. 26 from Rockport, Texas. (CNS photo/Adrees Latif, Reuters)

Catholic Charities USA, as well as the Society of St. Vincent de Paul Disaster Services, announced early on Aug. 26 that they’re mobilizing to help an as-yet-unknown number of persons affected by the hurricane. The Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops has a list of charities helping with the disaster listed on its website at https://txcatholic.org/harvey.

Authorities reported at least five casualties as of Aug. 27, but because of safety issues, not many emergency teams have been yet able to respond to the aftermath and much of the damage is unknown. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott declared the state a disaster area, which will allow federal money to help in reconstruction. Catholic groups said they want to help with the immediate needs of the communities affected.

“We will be sending in rapid-response teams to help our impacted St. Vincent de Paul councils and we are coordinating nationally with the Knights of Columbus, Knights of Malta and (Catholic Charities USA),” said Elizabeth Disco-Shearer, CEO of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul USA.

Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, on Aug. 27 urged “all people of goodwill to closely monitor future calls for assistance for victims and survivors in the days ahead.”

The cardinal also is the head of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, one of the hardest-hit areas.

“Hurricane Harvey hit the Gulf Coast in a catastrophic and devastating way this weekend, bringing with it severe flooding and high winds which have taken human life, caused countless injuries, and severely damaged homes and property throughout the region,” said the cardinal in an Aug. 27 news release. “The effects of this storm continue to put people in harm’s way, with horrific scenes playing out all around, such as those of people trapped on their rooftops as water continues to rise around them. Many dioceses of the church in the United States have been affected; many others will be as the storm continues.”

He asked for prayers but also for assistance for those affected. One of the first to pledge help was the Diocese of Brownsville, Texas, where Bishop Daniel E. Flores authorized a second collection to be taken up at the diocese’s local churches on the weekend of Aug. 26-27 to send to Catholic Charities in nearby Corpus Christi and “other places hardest hit by loss of power, storm damage, flooding.”

It’s been hard to communicate with other areas, said Bishop Flores in an Aug. 26 interview with Catholic News Service, so it’s hard to gauge the extent of the damage. But he said his diocese wanted to get a head start to quickly divert help where it is needed and as fast as possible.

If the Rio Grande Valley, where Bishop Flores’ diocese is located, was spared the major impact of Hurricane Harvey, then the diocese had a duty to help their neighbors to the north, in the coastal areas of Corpus Christi and Galveston-Houston, which seemed to be hit hardest, he said. Hurricane Harvey seemed to enter near Corpus Christi and affected seven coastal counties in Texas and one Louisiana parish.

“We continue to pray for every for everyone affected by the hurricane and those who are at risk as the storms continue,” said Bishop Flores in a statement.

Though the brunt of the hurricane’s winds has passed and Harvey was downgraded to a tropical storm hours after landfall, heavy rains and “catastrophic flooding” are expected for days, said the National Hurricane Center.

“We have to remember … the families affected by flood damage in the next few days in other parts of the state will be in need of relief,” said Bishop Flores. “We will assess better how we can help as we get further information about the needs from the (Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops) and Catholic Charities.”

In an Aug. 26 statement published by the Galveston-Houston archdiocese, Cardinal DiNardo said powerful winds and heavy rainfall have already impacted many lives and homes throughout the region, and many in the southern counties of his archdiocese have already suffered substantial property damage and losses

In Houston, the country’s fourth largest city with 6.6 million residents, many struggled seeking safety in flooded residential streets, which are expected to get up to 50 inches of rainfall by the time the rain stops sometime at the end of August.

“Numerous homes in these communities are currently without power. Several forecasts anticipate additional storm damage and flooding in the coming days, along with high winds and tornado activity,” Cardinal DiNardo said.

Up to 250,000 have been reported without power in Texas, a number that’s expected to rise.

San Antonio Archbishop Gustavo Garcia-Siller said in a statement that the archdiocese pledged its support to recovery efforts that will start after the rain and wind subside. 

“My thoughts and prayers are with the people of the dioceses of Corpus Christi and Victoria, as well as the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, as they cope with the damaging effects of Hurricane Harvey,” he said. “The people of San Antonio have opened their arms to welcome evacuees of this historic hurricane, and Catholic Charities of the archdiocese has been assisting and will continue to assist in a variety of ways those impacted by this natural disaster.”

Bishop W. Michael Mulvey, of the Diocese of Corpus Christi, said he was grateful to the bishops who reached out to him and to his diocese. He said the true damage around the diocese still is not known and officials are waiting for conditions that will allow a better assessment of the damage.

In his statement, Cardinal DiNardo asked for prayers for emergency personnel and volunteers who are out and about in dangerous conditions and also “for those residing in our archdiocese, in Texas and along the Gulf Coast, be safe and may God have mercy on those affected by Hurricane Harvey.”

       

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Catholic groups ask Congress to reject ‘discriminatory’ RAISE Act

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Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON — Calling a proposed piece of legislation “discriminatory,” the head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Migration called on the president and Congress to reject a bill that seeks to drastically cut legal immigration levels in half over a decade and which also would greatly limit the ability of citizens and legal residents to bring family into the U.S.

U.S. President Donald Trump makes an announcement on the introduction in the Senate of the Reforming American Immigration for Strong Employment Act, or RAISE, with Sens. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., and David Perdue, R-Ga., at the White House Aug. 2. (CNS photo/Zach Gibson, pool via EPA)

U.S. President Donald Trump makes an announcement on the introduction in the Senate of the Reforming American Immigration for Strong Employment Act, or RAISE, with Sens. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., and David Perdue, R-Ga., at the White House Aug. 2. (CNS photo/Zach Gibson, pool via EPA)

Other Catholic groups also called for an end to the legislation.

“Had this discriminatory legislation been in place generations ago, many of the very people who built and defended this nation would have been excluded,” said Bishop Joe S. Vasquez of Austin, Texas, chair of the bishops’ migration committee.

In a news release late Aug. 2, he criticized the RAISE Act introduced earlier in the day by Republican Sens. Tom Cotton, of Arkansas, and David Perdue, of Georgia.

In addition to cutting legal immigration, the Reforming American Immigration for a Strong Economy Act, or RAISE Act, would create a system of legal immigration different from the current one that favors family ties. Instead, it would move toward a system under which points would be awarded for a person’s ability to speak English, level of education, age, as well as “high-paying job offers, past achievements, and entrepreneurial initiative,” according to a White House statement praising the proposal.

Other limitations proposed by the RAISE Act would permanently cap the number of refugees allowed safe passage, “thereby denying our country the necessary flexibility to respond to humanitarian crisis,” said Bishop Vasquez.

“As a church, we believe the stronger the bonds of family, the greater a person’s chance of succeeding in life. The RAISE Act imposes a definition of family that would weaken those bonds,” he said.

Kevin Appleby, senior director of international migration policy at the Center for Migration Studies of New York, said the bill “is a nonstarter from a Catholic perspective, as it weakens the family unit and favors the rich over the poor. It also is part of a larger strategy by the administration to reduce the ethnic diversity of the immigrant population in this nation.”

The proposed bill was largely criticized and caused an uproar shortly after the president’s televised support early Aug. 2, saying it would reduce poverty, increase wages and save taxpayer money, adding that many current legal immigrants are low-skilled and many receive welfare benefits.

Later in the day, senior White House adviser Stephen Miller further added to the controversy over the bill after he seemed dismissive during a news briefing of the Statue of Liberty’s “”The New Colossus” poem and the line “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” and in defending the bill’s ability-to-speak-English requirement.

Even some of the president’s fellow Republicans, including South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, who said he has supported “merit-based” immigration, said he would not support the bill.

Bishop Vasquez said the bill would be detrimental to families and negates contributions of past immigrants to the U.S., and he called on Congress and the administration instead “to work together in a bipartisan fashion to enact into law comprehensive immigration reform.”

“I believe that such reform must recognize the many contributions that immigrants of all backgrounds have made to our nation, and must protect the lives and dignity of all, including the most vulnerable,” said Bishop Vasquez.

Christopher G. Kerr, executive director of the Ohio-based Ignatian Solidarity Network, a national social justice education and advocacy organization, said from a faith perspective, it’s hard to back the RAISE Act if you reflect on the words of the pope, who called on Americans during his 2015 apostolic visit “to not turn their backs on their neighbors.”

But the RAISE Act does just that by creating “obstacles to family unity for immigrant families and block access to safety for tens of thousands of refugees,” he said.

“We continue to call for immigration policies that support family unity, provide pathways to citizenship, and promote humane and just treatment of immigrants — the RAISE Act does not respond to this call,” said Kerr.

 

Follow Guidos on Twitter: @CNS_Rhina.

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Bishop calls bill that reduces legal immigration ‘discriminatory’

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Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON — Calling a proposed piece of legislation “discriminatory,” the head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Migration called on the president and Congress to reject a bill that seeks to drastically cut legal immigration levels over a decade, and which also would greatly limit the ability of citizens and legal residents to bring family into the U.S. Read more »

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Catholic leaders mourn ‘senseless deaths’ in trafficking tragedy

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SAN ANTONIO — The “completely senseless deaths” of 10 people who died of heat exhaustion and suffocation they suffered from being held in a tractor-trailer “is an incomprehensible tragedy,” said Archbishop Gustavo Garcia-Siller of San Antonio.

Police officers in San Antonio work a crime scene at Walmart July 23 after eight people were found dead inside an 18-wheeler truck. Several others were hospitalized in critical condition and the death toll reached 10 as of early July 24. Authorities say the truck was smuggling immigrants into the U.S. from Mexico and Central America. (CNS photo/Ray Whitehouse, Reuters)

Police officers in San Antonio work a crime scene at Walmart July 23 after eight people were found dead inside an 18-wheeler truck. Several others were hospitalized in critical condition and the death toll reached 10 as of early July 24. Authorities say the truck was smuggling immigrants into the U.S. from Mexico and Central America. (CNS photo/Ray Whitehouse, Reuters)

“There are no words to convey the sadness, despair and, yes, even anger we feel today,” he said in a statement released late July 23.

Earlier in the day, San Antonio law enforcement officials found eight bodies inside the trailer of an 18-wheeler sitting in the parking lot of a Walmart. The eight people who died were among 39 people packed in the trailer and suffering from extreme dehydration and heatstroke. At least 20 others rescued from the truck were in critical condition and transported to the hospital. Two later died, and by July 24 the death toll was at least 10.

In a July 24 statement, the chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Migration said the nation’s Catholic bishops joined their voices in mourning the loss of life and condemning the treatment of migrants, many of whom were from Mexico and Guatemala, in a suspected human trafficking operation.

“The loss of lives is tragic and avoidable. We condemn this terrible human exploitation that occurred and continues to happen in our country,” said Bishop Joe S. Vasquez of Austin.

“In a moment such as this, we reflect upon the words of the Holy Father, Pope Francis, ‘The defense of human beings knows no barriers: We are all united wanting to ensure a dignified life for every man, woman and child who is forced to abandon his or her own land,’” Bishop Vasquez said.

San Antonio Police Chief William McManus called it “a horrific tragedy” and said it was being looked at as “a human trafficking crime.”

AP reported that James Matthew Bradley, 60, of Clearwater, Fla., believed to be the driver of the tractor-trailer, was a suspect in the case and had been arrested on charges of smuggling.

San Antonio is about 150 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border. The temperature in the Texas city July 23 was 101 degrees all day and well into late evening. The human cargo in the tractor-trailer was discovered after someone left the truck and asked a Walmart worker for water, AP said.

In his statement, Archbishop Garcia-Siller said the community was praying for the recovery of the adults and children who were hospitalized. AP said that at least four of the survivors were between the ages of 10 and 17.

“Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of San Antonio has already reached out to our mayor and promised to offer whatever assistance is needed. We will do anything possible for these brothers and sisters and their families,” he said.

Archbishop Garcia-Siller said the tragedy was “a clarion call” for the nation to make immigration reform a priority.

“Everyone — the churches, law enforcement, state and national elected officials, civic organizations, charitable groups — has to prioritize the immigration issue and truly work together in new ways which have eluded us in the past for common sense solutions. No more delays. No more victims,” he said.

He recalled that when 19 people died in similar circumstances in a locked trailer in nearby Victoria in 2003, “the nation was stunned, and people of good will vowed to work diligently to ensure that something such as this would never happen again.”

“Unfortunately, law enforcement has reported an upsurge in these types of human smuggling and trafficking operations at the border in recent months,” Archbishop Garcia-Siller said.

      Such incidents involve “increasingly desperate individuals seeking safety and a better life for their families placing their well-being and indeed their lives in the hands of reprehensible, callous smugglers and traffickers,” he said.

      “We pray for these victims and all victims of human smuggling and trafficking; that this monstrous form of modern slavery will come to a quick and final end,” the archbishop added. “God cries seeing this reality and many other situations such as this across our country and around the world.”

      In a separate statement, the Austin-based Texas Catholic Conference, which is the public policy arm of the state’s Catholic bishops, joined Archbishop Garcia-Siller in mourning the migrants’ deaths and praying for the survivors.

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U.S. bishops call for permanent protection for young migrants

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Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON — The chair of the migration committee of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops urged the Trump administration to “ensure permanent protection” for youth who were brought to the U.S. as minors without legal documentation. Read more »

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Bishops, faith groups worry about consequences of partial travel ban

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Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON — The chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Migration said the country’s Catholic bishops are “deeply concerned” about the consequences of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to allow a partial ban on foreign nationals as it reviews the constitutionality of a wider ban.

“Today’s decision will have human consequences,” said Bishop Joe S. Vasquez, of Austin, Texas, following the U.S. Supreme Court’s announcement that in October it will hear a case involving President Donald Trump’s travel ban, which seeks to delay entry into the country by immigrants, including refugees, from six majority-Muslim countries. It also seeks to suspend, for a time, the entry of all refugees.

A stoplight by the steps to the U.S. Supreme Court reflects the court's decision to allow a partial travel bank on foreign nationals as it reviews a case. (CNS/Tyler Orsburn)

A stoplight by the steps to the U.S. Supreme Court reflects the court’s decision to allow a partial travel bank on foreign nationals as it reviews a case. (CNS/Tyler Orsburn)

The court announced June 26 that until its hears the case in the fall and weighs a decision, it would allow part of the ban to be implemented and some “foreign nationals” will be barred from entering the country, but that determination will be made depending on the applicant’s previous relationships with a person or institution in the U.S. The administration says it needs to implement the ban while it reviews the refugee resettlement program and its vetting procedures.

Bishop Vasquez said the bishops are “deeply concerned about the welfare of the many other vulnerable populations who will now not be allowed to arrive and seek protection during the proscribed pause, most notably certain individuals fleeing religious persecution and unaccompanied refugee children.”

He urged the Trump administration to include refugee service providers as well as national security and immigration experts in a timely, transparent and efficient review of the existing refugee resettlement program.

“We believe it is vital to utilize the full expertise of the existing resettlement program when conducting such an important evaluation,” he said in a statement issued late June 26.

The court said the partial ban it has allowed to go forward allows “foreign nationals who have a credible claim of a bona fide relationship with a person or entity in the United States” to apply for entry, but “all other foreign nationals are subject to the provisions of (the executive order).”

That means a person with family or a nexus with an organization, such as a university or employer, is not affected by the ban.

The court seemed to be taking into consideration the hardships the ban would create for an “American party,” such as a family member, whose relatives are denied entry, or for a university or employer, while also trying to consider the administration’s arguments that it’s necessary to do so in the interest of national security.

Denying entry to immigrants with no connection to the country “does not burden any American party,” the court said. And though the order is seeking to cap the number of refugees allowed into the country at 50,000, the court said that if a person with one of the previously mentioned connections to the U.S. is seeking refuge, “such as a person may not be excluded … even if the 50,000 has been reached or exceeded.”

Groups such as Catholic Relief Services, the official international humanitarian agency of the Catholic community in the United States, expressed disappointment with the ruling.

“This ruling will devastate some of the most vulnerable people in the world, innocent people who are fleeing the exact kind of violence that this executive order seeks to protect against,” said Bill O’Keefe, CRS’ vice president for government relations and advocacy. “The facts tell us that that these refugees already undergo significant vetting – more than anyone who enters the United States — and none has gone on to commit acts of violence.”

It also reinforces the false idea that refugees are dangerous, O’Keefe said.

“We outright reject the idea that refugees are implicitly dangerous,” he said. “At a time of such unprecedented need around the world, we should be doing more to help and resettle those who are in danger and need, not less.”

Christopher G. Kerr, executive director of Ignatian Solidarity Network, a national social justice education and advocacy organization based in Ohio, said the high court’s decision “does not reflect our country’s spirit of compassion and welcome.”

“When we create uncertainty for those seeking safety from conflict and persecution, we compromise their dignity as fellow people of God,” said Kerr. “We continue to stand with those seeking refuge and safety here in the United States.”

The troubled executive order went into litigation almost as soon as it was issued Jan. 27, just a week into the new president’s term. It was revised in March, but those revisions, too, have faced legal challenges.

In a statement after the court’s announcement, Trump said the high court’s decision was a “clear victory” for national security.

“It allows the travel suspension for the six terror-prone countries and the refugee suspension to become largely effective,” he said.

In a partial dissent, Justice Clarence Thomas said he worried that “the court’s remedy will prove unworkable” and that the “compromise will burden executive officials with the task of deciding, on peril of contempt, whether individuals from the six affected nations who wish to enter the United States have a sufficient connection to a person or entity in this country.”

It also may “invite a flood of litigation until this case is finally resolved,” he said.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision came a day before it ended its current term. The new court term begins in October.

Follow Guidos on Twitter: @CNS_Rhina.

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Texas pastor named bishop for Florida diocese

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WASHINGTON — Pope Francis has named Holy Cross Father William A. Wack, who is a pastor in Texas, to be the bishop of Pensacola-Tallahassee.

Bishop-designate Wack, 49, has been pastor of St. Ignatius Martyr Parish in Austin, Texas, since 2009. He succeeds Bishop Gregory L. Parkes, who was named last November to head the Diocese of St. Petersburg, Florida.

Pope Francis has named Holy Cross Father William A. Wack, pastor of St. Ignatius Martyr Parish in Austin, Texas, since 2009, to be the bishop of Pensacola-Tallahassee, Fla. He succeeds Bishop Gregory L. Parkes, who was named last November to head the Diocese of St. Petersburg. (CNS photo/courtesy Congregation of Holy Cross)

Pope Francis has named Holy Cross Father William A. Wack, pastor of St. Ignatius Martyr Parish in Austin, Texas, since 2009, to be the bishop of Pensacola-Tallahassee, Fla. He succeeds Bishop Gregory L. Parkes, who was named last November to head the Diocese of St. Petersburg. (CNS photo/courtesy Congregation of Holy Cross)

The appointment was announced in Washington May 29 by Archbishop Christophe Pierre, apostolic nuncio to the United States.

The date of Bishop-designate Wack’s episcopal ordination has not yet been determined.

“Now I know for sure that God is merciful, having called this sinner to serve in this capacity,” Bishop-designate Wack said May 29 in a statement about his appointment. “The first words which came to mind when I heard of the appointment were, ‘Lord I am not worthy … but only say the Word … .’ With joy and zeal, I accept this appointment, and I am thrilled to begin service to God’s people as a bishop.”

“While I am very sad to be leaving the parish of St. Ignatius Martyr in Austin … I couldn’t be more excited to move in and get to work here in the diocese,” he added.

He said he has always loved being a priest. “For me there is nothing higher than the privilege of celebrating the Eucharist and the other sacraments,” Bishop-designate Wack said. “Over the past 23 years I have grown tremendously in my faith, through the very mysteries I have served.”

As a Holy Cross priest, he continued, “I know of the power of the cross of Christ, and the hope that it brings to all creation. We in Holy Cross strive to be ‘educators in the faith’ wherever we go, and I am happy to continue to do this in the Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee.

Bishop-designate Wack added: “While I embrace a leadership position in the church once again, I believe that I stand to learn much from the very people I will serve. We are all God’s children, for we have been given God’s Spirit. It is our sacred duty to celebrate and practice our faith together, and to make God known, loved and served in all that we do.”

“Father Wack is an exemplary priest who is well respected by his brother priests and loved by those he serves,” Bishop Joe S. Vasquez of Austin said in a statement. “Father Wack has been of great help to me, and I express my deep appreciation to him for his years of service in the Diocese of Austin.”

“As the people of Pensacola-Tallahassee come to know him, they will see his love for the church and his desire to serve his flock with warmth and compassion,” he added.

Holy Cross Father Thomas O’ Hara, provincial superior of the U. S. province of the Congregation of Holy Cross, called Bishop-designate Wack “a gifted pastor and administrator who possesses an extremely welcoming personality.”

“He is quick to reach out to all, is strong enough to lead and humble enough to listen. Above all, he is an outstanding priest who is passionate in his faith and absolutely dedicated to serving the people of God,” Father O’Hara said.

Bishop Parkes said he shared in the joy of Catholics of Pensacola-Tallahassee getting a new shepherd, who with the diocese “will be in my prayers during this time of transition.” 

Since Bishop Parkes’ appointment to St. Petersburg, Msgr. James Flaherty has served as Pensacola-Tallahassee’s diocesan administrator.

Born June 28, 1967, in South Bend, Indiana, Bishop designate-Wack is the second-youngest of 10 children. His younger brother also is a Holy Cross priest, Father Neil Wack.

William A. Wack entered the novitiate for the Congregation of Holy Cross in 1989. He earned a bachelor of arts degree in government and international relations from the University of Notre Dame in 1989. He earned a master of divinity degree in 1993, also from Notre Dame.

He professed his final vows in 1993 and was ordained a priest April 9, 1994. His assignments after ordination included associate pastor at Sacred Heart Parish in Colorado Springs, Colorado, from 1994-1997. He was associate director of vocations for his congregation from 1997-2002 at Notre Dame; at that time, he also was with the Holy Cross Associates, 1998-2002.

He then spent six years, from 2002 to 2008, as director of Andre House of Hospitality in downtown Phoenix, which is ministers to the city’s poor and homeless. It runs a soup kitchen, which serves over 200,000 meals per year, and provides a small transition shelter for men and women; clothing and blanket distribution; and showers and lockers for its clients.

The Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee covers about 14,000 square miles in Florida’s panhandle. Out of a total population of 1.46 million people, about 5 percent, or 67,316 people, are Catholic.

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45 people saved from tornado’s fury in hallway of Texas church

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Catholic News Service

In the insurance world, extreme weather events such as tornadoes are often referred to as “acts of God.”

But in the small Texas town of Emory, about 50 miles northwest of Tyler and 70 miles east of Dallas, some 45 people are considering it an act of God that they survived a twister that took out all of their church except for the hallway in which they were huddled.

St. John the Evangelist church in Emory, Texas, is seen April 30 after a tornado hit the area a day earlier. (CNS/Diocese of Tyler)

The remains of St. John the Evangelist church in Emory, Texas,  on April 30 after a tornado hit the area a day earlier. (CNS/Diocese of Tyler)

The providential event took place the evening of April 29, as severe storms tore through Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas on a northeasterly path that killed at least 13 people in three states.

The youth ministry at St. John the Evangelist Parish in Emory was hosting a dinner honoring the parish’s graduating high school seniors in conjunction with the parish’s Knights of Columbus council and its ladies’ guild.

“I got a phone call from Maggie (Conder), the volunteer in the office,” youth minister Monica Hughes told Catholic News Service May 1. “I almost didn’t answer, because I didn’t want to interrupt the speaker.” But Hughes knew Conder was monitoring the paths of storms in Texas, and “she wouldn’t have interrupted unless it was important,” Hughes said.

It was: “The tornado that hit Canton was heading straight for us,” she recalled.

Hughes said she and her husband both tried to pull up weather radar on their cellphones without luck. Then Hughes made the decision to tell teens and adults to move to the church hallway. The decision, she said, was based on “this instinct when you learn when you’re a child; you go to the hallway and you cover your head.”

There was some grumbling by the teens but everyone complied, Hughes remembers. “It’s the innermost place of the building,” she said of the hallway. “Everything else had exterior walls. On my way, I went around and I locked all the exterior doors to the building, just one little extra step to keep the wind from ripping them open.”

Thirty seconds after Hughes got into the hallway after completing her rounds, “my husband said, ‘It’s hitting.’ He saw the roof of the sanctuary rip off — one piece. We saw the doors fly open into the sanctuary space. My husband grabbed the door and he held on with everything (he had) to the other,” Hughes said. “What I saw was people covering each other, comforting each other — parents covering small children, teenagers huddling together. We began to pray.”

The parish’s deacon, Marcelino Espinosa, was at one end of the hallway as he began a rosary; Hughes was at the other end beginning the Divine Mercy chaplet.

“We didn’t have this horrible fear, we felt protected,” she told CNS. “The whole time that we were in there and we were holding those doors, I felt that Jesus was over us … whispering to me, ‘It’s OK, I’ve got you.’”

She added, “I described it … as a Passover. The tornado came, and it his us with full force and it was over.”

After a quick assessment of the damage, the group decided to stay put as another storm was bearing down on them. Firefighters coming after the second storm advised them to evacuate as the combination of a downed power line and a gas leak threatened catastrophe, Hughes said.

Once outside, they saw the church was destroyed, except for the hallway. The pastor’s house nearby was spared, save for a damaged backyard fence. One irony in the storm: Hughes’ 22-year-old daughter, who was at the dinner as well, had been evacuated in March from Peru where flooding and landslides wiped out destroyed entire communities. “And now we had to pluck her out of a tornado,” Hughes said.

“It’s a miracle,” declared the pastor, Father Victor Hernandez. “People could experience the hands of God protecting them.”

He was not at the dinner, having been summoned to celebrate Mass in Pittsburgh, Texas, about 75 minutes from Emory. On his drive back, “I heard the sirens go off and I wanted to be with my community,” he said.

Parishioners celebrated Mass as usual April 30, but outside on parish property. “We’re going to come out of this stronger than ever,” Father Hernandez said. “We are going to have a new building and church, which was not in our plans. We are going to move bigger and faster.”

 

Follow Pattison on Twitter: @MeMarkPattison.

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