by Jill Ragar Esfeld
HOLTON — The phone rang at 12:30 a.m. The connection was bad.
In between bursts of static, Father Richard Halvorson of St. Dominic Parish here thought he heard parishioner Barbara Grau say her house was gone.
“What?” he asked. “Barb, did you say your house is gone?”
“Yes, Father,” came the broken response. “We lost everything!”
“What do you want me to do?” he yelled over the static.
“Pray for us,” she said.
And the line went dead.
Father Halvorson stayed up all night praying — for Barb and her husband, John, and for all those in the little town of Soldier, 17 miles northwest of Holton, who had been touched by the tornado that ripped through the area.
In the morning, he would know the worst: the quarter-mile-wide tornado damaged 29 homes and destroyed three — including the Graus’, their neighbor’s across the road, and a mobile home whose owner did not survive.
Tracking a twister
When warning sirens went off in Topeka at 11:50 p.m. June 11, Barb Grau’s brother called to warn her it looked like the tornado might be headed her way.
When at midnight, the sirens went off in Soldier, John pulled on his shoes and joined his wife in the basement, where she was quilting, watching the weather on TV, and praying her rosary.
When the television screen turned to static, John grew worried enough to suggest they get in a closet underneath the stairs.
“I sat on one of my quilts that I’d just finished,” said Barb.
And then it hit.
“He shut the door. We heard the wind. We lay on the floor. He got on top of me and we held on to each other. We heard glass break and things cracking and buckling.
“In less than 10 seconds, it was all over, and rain started to pour in on us.” The couple knew then that their house was gone.
“That’s when the adrenaline started pumping,” recalled John. “My first thought was to turn off the propane tank and get my wife to safety.”
The couple’s truck was in the basement garage and drivable, but the driveway out to the main road was blocked by fallen trees. Barb pulled out her cell phone and dialed 911.
The Graus’ son-in-law, a deputy with the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office, heard the call go out. He raced to his in-laws’ home and helped Barb traverse the obstructed drive.
Neighbors then took Barb to the home of her daughter, Kathy Cariness.
The first words out of Barb’s mouth when she saw her daughter were, “Call Father.”
Barb said she’s not sure why that was her first impulse. But she does recognize that recently she’s had a very strong awareness of her faith.
“I pray the rosary every night before I go to bed,” she said. “Sometimes I fall asleep and I wake up in the middle of the night still clutching my rosary.”
Barb was praying her rosary, in fact, on the way home from a finance council meeting at St. Dominic the evening of the storm, and as she watched the televised tracking of the tornado. She credits Mary with saving their lives.
“I had a statue of the Blessed Mother sitting right here in front of the house,” she said, pointing to the concrete foundation. “And she sat there through all the wind and everything.
“The next morning, she was over by that tree,” continued Barb, “facing the house, with not a scratch on her. I just know it was the Blessed Mother that kept us alive through all that.”
Cariness said that both her parents have a strong faith they are relying on to see them through this crisis.
As she digs through the rubble looking for salvageable belongings, she knows to take special care of any religious items.
“Like my baptism stuff, I found that; and I found the saints book down there — I knew she’d want that,” she said.
The Graus were ecstatic when volunteers recovered their family Bible — covered in dirt and a little worse for wear, but in one piece.
And that’s pretty much how those same volunteers found the homeless family when they arrived — in droves — to help.
Faith in action
“The Knights came out and did everything in the world that they could do these first two days,” said John. “And then all our neighbors and acquaintances have showed up and all kinds of friends.”
One of the first calls Father Halvorson made the morning after the storm was to Grand Knight Tom McAsey, who immediately set up a $300 relief account at Wal-Mart for fellow Knight John Grau’s family and one for their neighbors, the Holliday family, although they are not Catholic.
“We did that for both families,” explained Knight Larry Tanking, “because we don’t just take care of Knights. We take care of the community.”
Father Halvorson bought $200 gift cards for both families, and members of both St. Dominic and the Soldier Christian Church arrived to help the families clear debris and search for belongings.
“I bet between the Holliday house and this house we’ve had 100 volunteers,” said Cariness. “They’ve been feeding us at the [Soldier City] hall morning, noon and night — which is good, because mom is the [ultimate] hostess and would worry about how to feed everyone.”
Experiencing God’s love
Father Halvorson is not surprised at the outpouring of help from his community.
“Sometimes it takes something like this to make us realize truly what our human nature is — to be out there for one another, helping,” he said.
For his part, John believes the faith of his neighbors has played a big part in helping him get through this crisis.
“It takes everything to make you get through something like this,” he said. “Not only your faith, but the people who come to help — those are people of faith, too, and I think that’s what really keeps you together.”
“This wasn’t a little old deal,” he continued. “When that tornado took that house away and the steps right off the top of us, and we were lying there in the rain, why, I knew something had really happened, and we were awful blessed to just be there.”
And Barb knows who to thank. “Mary saved us,” she said simply.
To make a donation, make checks payable to St. Dominic Parish, Holton, and note on the memo line, “Tornado victims.”
Mail checks to: St. Dominic Parish, Holton, Attn: Tornado victims, 416 Ohio Ave., Holton, KS 66436.