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Joplin, Missouri: One Year Later View Comments
By Jeannette Cooperman

A wooden altar, cross and statue are all that remain of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Joplin, Mo., after a tornado ripped through the city on May 22, 2011. The church building, rectory, school and parish hall were destroyed.

AT 5:38 P.M. ON MAY 22, 2011, sirens screamed through downtown Joplin, Mo., just minutes ahead of the country’s deadliest tornado in 50 years. Father J. Friedel ushered his new Indian assistant, Father Shoby Mathew Chettiyath, to the rectory basement and tried to explain what a tornado was.

When the winds calmed, Father Friedel crossed over to the beautiful, old white-stone church of St. Peter the Apostle. “The tornado touched down on Rangeline,” he told the handful of parishioners, urging them to check on any family or friends in that part of town. Then he said a quick, fervent Mass.

He didn’t know the extent of the damage until he emerged from the church and heard someone say the hospital was gone.

“What do you mean the hospital’s gone?” Father Friedel asked, unable to imagine the seven floors of St. John’s Regional Medical Center collapsing — let alone Joplin High School, Walmart and thousands of houses and businesses. The tornado had sheared away a wide swath of Joplin, just 12 blocks to the south of St. Peter’s.

Father Friedel worked all night, unlocking the Catholic high school so it could be used as a triage station, wheeling the injured in office chairs, organizing supplies and checking on parishioners and his colleague at Joplin’s other Catholic church, St. Mary’s.

Father Justin Monaghan, 70, had taken shelter in a bathtub in the rectory, and St. Mary’s Catholic Church had fallen to pieces around him. By the time the winds stopped, only the church’s large cross — and its pastor — remained intact.

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Jeannette Cooperman is a staff writer at St. Louis Magazine. She’s won regional and national awards for her features on social issues, health, religion and education.

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