ELLICOTT CITY – In the immediate aftermath of the flood that washed through Main Street and other parts of this historic Howard County town May 27, St. Paul Parish, perched on the hill above the floodwaters, was able to serve folks in little ways – acting as a way station for those trying to get home, and coordinating transportation for some who could not get to their vehicles.
The first couple of days, the parish had limited electricity and no running water, according to the pastor, Father Warren Tanghe. Over the next several days, the parish served as a base of operations for BGE power crews.
Just six days after the flood, and on the day when some Main Street business owners and residents were allowed brief access to their properties, Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori celebrated Mass June 2 for the vigil of the feast of Corpus Christi at St. Paul.
He told a story of how, early in his priesthood, he stopped to visit a woman who was dying. Though he expected to stay for only a short while, when she asked him to stay – as she did not expect to live much longer – he stayed with her until she passed away.
In prayer before the Blessed Sacrament the next day, he said he could imagine the Lord telling him that as the Lord stays with his people, the young priest should do the same.
“It was this early lesson in my priesthood that prompted me to come here today as you cope with the aftermath of severe flooding, a severe hardship coming so soon after the last catastrophic flood in 2016,” the archbishop said in his homily. “A number of you, I know, were able to view your flood-damaged properties today and you face difficult questions and decisions as you look to the future.”
He acknowledged that a number of people from inside and outside the close-knit community are pitching in to help.
“I came today just to be with you, to pray with you, to offer you a word of love and encouragement, and in this difficult time, to remind you of the abiding presence of the Lord in our midst. For this is what the Feast of Corpus Christi is all about – the true eucharistic presence of Jesus body, blood, soul and divinity,” Archbishop Lori said. “A principal message of today’s feast might be summed up this way: as Jesus is present to us in the Eucharist, so we need to be present to those in need.”
He said the presence of loved ones can be a comfort in times of tragedy, even if they cannot change the situation. “We also rely on the friendship and love of those who know us well, who know our strengths and weakness, who understand how we react to the curveballs that life inevitably hurls at us in one form or another.
“Jesus is present to us in the same way. Pope Francis often reminds us that the Lord knows us, loves us and cares about us,” the archbishop said.
Reflecting on the day’s readings about the Eucharist and Christ’s sacrifice for us, Archbishop Lori called on the parishioners in Ellicott City similarly to sacrifice themselves for others.
“As we experience the depths of the Lord’s love for us, do we not also hear the Lord saying to you and me: ‘Love one another as I have loved you’?” he asked. “In reaching out to your friends and neighbors who are enduring this difficult plight, you give evidence that the Christ whom you receive lives in you, speaks with your voice and serves the needs of others with your hands.”
The archbishop encouraged the people to allow the eucharistic presence of Jesus to make them more present to one another and give themselves to one another, even in the most trying of times.
“That is the key to rebuilding not merely our town but indeed our very lives,” he said.
Thea archbishop also acknowledged the help of first responders and rescue workers and prayed for Eddison Hermond, a National Guardsman who died after being swept away by flood waters while providing assistance to a shop owner.
Kevin Marron, who lies in Parkville, works for BGE and is assisting with logistics during the clean-up effort. Wearing a reflective yellow vest and carrying a hardhat, he attended the Mass. “It’s always good to be thankful,” he said as he exited the church.
Bonnie Sorak, outreach coordinator for Interfaith Partners for the Chesapeake who lives in Ellicott City, is not Catholic but attended the Mass when she heard the archbishop would be there.
“We work to educate and inspire communities of faith to focus on the problem of polluted storm water,” she said, noting that a flood such as the one this year has a big impact on the community and can bring “terrible trauma.” Her group works with congregations to see what they can do to solve the problems storm water can cause, though she noted nothing could handle the 7 inches of rain that fell in one afternoon on the town and nearby Catonsville.
“Not that anything can solve this problem – but we work with congregations to plant trees, put in rain barrels and install cisterns to help mitigate storm water damage,” she said. “But in such a devastating event, there’s really nothing that could have stopped what was to happen. I came today to hear the message of faith and hope and restoration.”
After the Mass, Father Tanghe noted that rather than providing shelter and other immediate assistance, the week was more about helping people deal with the grief they are feeling.
“It’s not quite a despair,” he said, “but a sense of defeat.” Two years ago, people readily said they would rebuild, with an almost fervent spirit. This time, that’s not so much the case.
He said his homily the next day would begin and end with hope.
He said that in confession, sometimes he hears words of despair. “One has to acknowledge that. One can’t explain why these things happen.”
The parish women’s Bible study, which meets weekly, started with the group talking about inconveniences since the storm such as roads closed or power outages. “They came to understand that what was really under all that was shock and grief. They were able to engage with each other about that,” Father Tanghe said.
He said he thinks in many ways the impact from this flood will be more extensive than in 2016. He thinks the parish will be called on to help people who have been displaced find longer-term housing.
“People are asking whether they want to rebuild,” the pastor said. A lot of that hinges on developing a solid plan to mitigate the potential for flooding in the future, he added.
And as the parishioners and the archbishop left the church, more rain began to fall.
Email Christopher Gunty at editor@CatholicReview.org