During the first week of December 2021, Ursuline Sister Martha Keller was wrapping up her catechetical work until after Christmas at St. Jerome Parish in Fancy Farm, Ky. She knew when January arrived, she would be very busy.
On Dec. 10, her plans and those of the parish changed drastically. Powerful tornadoes devastated nearby Mayfield. In the ensuing two months, Sister Martha has found herself leading relief efforts for survivors and a card-writing campaign to lift the spirits of those in need.
“The main question I get is, ‘Why did God let this happen?’ We’re seeing people who were already beaten down and struggling,” Sister Martha said. “This has provided an opportunity to realize how blessed we are, and how generous people are to help in a time of crisis. If we could just keep that spirit going, without judgement.”
St. Jerome became a temporary shelter for the displaced immediately after the tornado, then evolved into a distribution center for donated items, such as toiletries, food and blankets. The Federal Emergency Management Agency took over distribution on Jan. 3.
“Before Jan. 3, we helped 146 people,” Sister Martha said. “Since then, we have referred about 70 people to the right source to get help.”
The Catholic Charities office with the Diocese of Owensboro, led by Susan Montalvo-Gesser, is working on the long-term needs of the tornado victims. The office is training caseworkers and is providing more contacts for Sister Martha to assist.
“None of us is the messiah,” Sister Martha said. “It’s been such a networking of people. Susan Gesser has been such a blessing. Just listening to her, this woman is steeped in justice. I was just amazed at the way she has been empowered by Bishop (William) Medley to coordinate all the responses. It’s such a realization that this is the Church at its best. The Church is still responding to these people. We need volunteers. It’s going to be a long haul.”
When Sister Martha learned of the Three Kings project begun by the Knights of Columbus chapter in Louisville, she decided to extend the project in western Kentucky until at least Easter. Modeled after the Magi who visited the Holy Family after the birth of Jesus, people are asked to write three notes of encouragement to the tornado victims and mail them to Sister Martha.
“I have received over 250 cards,” Sister Martha said on Feb. 7. “I get cards every day in the mail. Some are from religious communities, some are Ursuline Associates. Some of the people, I don’t know who they are. They’ve come from San Antonio and California.”
The Global Sisters Report, which shares news about Catholic Sisters all over the world, shared an article about the project, which caught the eye of several religious communities. Sister Martha said she was not surprised by the outpouring of response.
“In times of crisis, there are people who will respond.”
She has mailed cards to anyone she has worked with since the tornado who has shared their address. She hands cards to the people who come into her office for help. Most of them do not open the cards in her presence, because they are still dealing with the trauma.
“They don’t linger, they can barely converse,” she said.
Sister Martha is now the lone member of the St. Jerome staff still working with tornado victims. She has also returned to the sacramental preparation work she was hired to do at the parish, working with people involved in RCIA, reconciliation, first communion and confirmation. The only part of her ministry she hasn’t returned to is visiting the homebound, but that has more to do with high Covid numbers than the tornado.
“I want to acknowledge how supported I’ve been by other religious communities, probably because of the Global Sisters Report article,” Sister Martha said. She is also appreciative of the Knights of Columbus from all over.
“The Knights of Columbus from New Jersey are driving 23 hours to bring two trucks of canned goods,” Sister Martha said. “We will store some of it for them because all the pantries in the area are stuffed to the gills. But they had already collected this, so they are bringing it. It’s just a network of people.”
For those who want to participate in the Three Kings Project, follow these steps:
- Write a note, a card or share a children’s drawing to inspire hope and joy.
- Make three of these cards, and address them as either “Dear Brother or Sister,” “Dear Family,” “Dear Friend,” or some other salutation.
- On the outside of the envelope, write “Three Kings Project.”
- Place the three cards in a larger envelope and mail them to:
St. Jerome Catholic Church
c/o Sister Martha Keller
P.O. Box 38
Fancy Farm, KY 42039
Whether you sign the cards or provide a return address is up to each individual. It is not essential, but it could lead to developing an ongoing relationship, Sister Martha said.
For those who would like to donate to ongoing tornado relief, you may do so through the Catholic Charities office with the Diocese of Owensboro, through its website: www.owensborodiocese.org/give.