Students of St. Mary's School in Joplin, Missouri are back in session, despite the loss of their school and parish in a tornado last May. Their local bishop says he sees God bringing good out of suffering.
“There is still much to be done, still great suffering and uncertainty in the lives of many citizens,” Bishop James V. Johnston of Springfield-Cape Girardeau wrote in a recent column for the diocese's weekly publication The Mirror. “Yet, there are also many signs of God’s grace at work, pointing to a future full of hope.”
St. Mary's lost three weeks of its 2011-2012 school year, as the Joplin Catholic Schools system worked to turn a former warehouse into a makeshift school building for 210 students. The three weeks were nothing compared to the loss of their building, leveled except for a single large cross that survived the storm.
Annette Taylor, a teacher at St. Mary's for nearly two decades, once told a young student she thought the cross could survive just such an onslaught.
“He said, 'Mrs. Taylor, do you think if there was a tornado this cross would still stand?' And I looked at him and said, 'if there was a tornado I'm sure it would stand; it's a strong cross,'” she told the local ABC affiliate KSPR.
Some elements of the new school were salvaged from the old building, including a statue of the Virgin Mary and some decorations found in a closet. But most of the converted warehouse's new furnishings have come from generous donors across the country.
Bishop Johnston gave thanks for the local and national responses to Joplin's losses in his diocesan newspaper column.
“It is inspiring and gratifying to witness such a generous and unselfish reaction and outpouring to this tragedy,” the Missouri bishop reflected, noting that people outside his state had come to Joplin's aid.
“I am especially grateful for each of them,” he wrote, “and for the generous support from our Catholic brothers and sisters in the state of Missouri.” He said the local community's “heartfelt responses” included financial donations, volunteer time, technical expertise, “and most importantly, prayers.”
For now, it is unclear whether or not that support will go toward rebuilding St. Mary's. The improvised facility has no gym, lunchroom, or library, and its future is unclear.
The school is also missing one girl who would have been in kindergarten this year. Harli Howard died in the tornado along with her father and baby brother, when all three were trapped inside a Home Depot during the storm.
The three family members were among more than 150 people who died from the tornado, which swept through 14 miles in the town of 50,000.
In his message to the community, Bishop Johnston stressed that “months and years” of recovery lay ahead, during which “we must continue to serve our friends in need with the heart of Jesus, facing the mystery of suffering with both faith and hope.”