Men in Black battle the abominable snowfall

by Joe Bollig
joe.bollig@theleaven.org

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — You can count on this: The Men in Black cannot be stopped by the stuff that’s white.

That is, if a priest can get from the rectory to the church, there WILL be Mass, no matter how much snow there is or how many other things are canceled.
And lots of guys with snowblowers, tractors, shovels and ice melting stuff will suddenly appear at the parish — like the ferocious Spartoi of Greek lore.
Schools, businesses, agencies and churches of all kinds shut down in early February when northeast Kansas was buried under 8 to 13 inches of snow, with some drifting and wind chills below zero.

But not Catholic churches, at least for Mass. Unlike Protestant traditions, Catholics have a habit of daily Mass, even if the numbers do not compare to Sunday attendance.

“I did not cancel Masses, but the attendance was very thin,” said Father Reginald Saldanha, pastor of St. Philip Neri in Osawatomie, Sacred Heart in Mound City, and Our Lady of Lourdes in La Cygne.

Nor did he cancel any meetings, although one had to be rescheduled anyway.
Catholics are under no obligation to attend daily Mass — or even on Sunday — if doing so would put them in some danger, said Father Saldanha. He has even canceled Masses in the past so people won’t take risks (although priests are encouraged to celebrate Mass daily and are allowed to do so alone).

A few doughty souls, however, always show up.

“There are some pretty tough people around here,” said Father Saldanha. “Most of them are farmers, and they are used to traveling in snow and ice.”

That certainly isn’t Father Saldanha’s tradition. When he was growing up in tropical Mangalore, India, he didn’t even own a sweater. Now, he is like a true son of Kansas.

“I love it — love it!” he said. “I look forward to these kinds of things! It’s something I never experienced before, so when it’s snowy and icy, I just want to drive in those conditions. . . . I won’t be intimidated by snow, but I take care.”

Even so, his solicitous parishioners with four-wheel drive vehicles offer him transport, handing him off from parish to parish like a bag of mail from the Pony Express.

It takes more than a little thing like a foot of blowing snow to intimidate Father Edward Oen, CPPS, pastor of Sacred Heart Parish in Baileyville and St. Mary Parish in St. Benedict.

“This is simple for me,” said Father Edward. “I was in northern Wisconsin for 12 years. I was up there where the ice got 48 inches thick and we’d drive out on the lake to fish.”

Now that he’s 76 years old, he doesn’t enjoy the cold weather as much as he used to, so he’s glad to spend the winters in “balmy” northeastern Kansas.

“Yes, I have worn a snowmobile suit and a snowmobile coat for the past month,” said Father Edward. “It’s light material, but it keeps you warm.”

Despite the town being unincorporated, snow removal is no problem. He doesn’t keep a list and he doesn’t have to call. People just show up with their tractors and trucks with blades, and front loaders.

“I don’t have to call anyone,” he said. “Usually, people have folks living in town. They clear the streets and driveways for the elderly, then they come over here and work on the church grounds. We have the snow piled 12-feet deep on the corner, and lots of kids like to slide down on it.”

Father Edward was forced to cancel all scheduled meetings, but the Mass went on. And people came, although a lot of the elderly regulars didn’t venture out. Before Christmas, one lady had fallen on the ice and ended up in the hospital. Once she was better, however, she was back at Mass.

The snow affected “pretty much everything” in Topeka, which had more than a foot of snow, said Father Jerry Volz, pastor of St. Matthew Parish there. For two days, school and all parish activities were canceled. The office closed for four days. Even eucharistic adoration was suspended.

But Mass was not canceled. Ten people showed up on Tuesday morning, and about 35 people on Wednesday evening.

“I always celebrate daily Mass, since I live across the street,” said Father Volz. “I have Mass no matter what, and if people want to try to come, they can.”

And of course, he joined the shovel brigade.

“Since we focus on stewardship at the parish, we have a lot of people who help [with snow removal],” said Father Volz. “We have a lot of snow blowers and shovels here, and people donate to clear off all the parking lots. I make sure I’m part of it, because it gets me out into the snow, and that’s fun.”

Sometimes it doesn’t matter how much snow falls, but where it’s distributed by the wind. Such was the situation around St. Michael Parish in Axtell.

“We were out of school for three days that week,” said Father Albert Hauser, OSB. “The snow started, and with the snow came blowing and then the cold weather. The worst part out there was the wind. It took a lot of work to keep the roads open, because of drifting.”

How bad was it? It was so bad that he couldn’t celebrate a daily Mass at Holy Family Parish in Summerfield.

“One day, I had only one [attendee], so there were two of us,” said Father Albert. “The next day we had four, and the next we had six.”

But no matter how high the drifts are, he can always count on his hearty, dependable parishioners.

“They just show up,” he said. “There were at least three tractors clearing the lot and the road to the school and the sidewalks. They did it all on their own. They know [the parish’s needs], so they do it voluntarily. I don’t have to call anyone, thank God.”

Axtell is a small town of about 500 people, so people know each other. They know who’s sick, elderly or in a situation where they need help. Axtell people pull together and help each other, said Father Albert.

“They’re very loyal,” he said. “They help out.”

© The Leaven, Feb. 14, 2014

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