Former Champaign priest in midst of Washington tornado aftermath

Former Champaign priest in midst of Washington tornado aftermath

WASHINGTON — In June, the Rev. Steve Willard stood on the altar at Holy Cross Church, weeping as he revealed to parishioners he was being reassigned to a church in western Illinois.

After eight years at the helm of the central Champaign Catholic parish, he was being transferred to Washington, not far from his hometown of Peoria.

'I'm not sure what God has in store for me,' the beloved priest told his Holy Cross family.

On Sunday, God gave the 47-year-old priest of 20 years a hint.

"The sirens were going off about a minute before 11. I wasn't vested yet," he said.

He ran outside of the church on the east end of town to get people inside as quickly as possible, stopping to help a lady in a wheelchair. There were more than 200 people inside. The 11 o'clock is the most popular of the three Sunday services, he said, a fact that would prove life-saving.

"The sky was black. I kept hearing the train noise. I was looking down our street and saw a funnel cloud. It would come down and go up like a wall," he said, excitedly reciting the memory of what happened four days earlier.

Willard felt confident that the wall of whatever was coming was going to miss St. Patrick's, but he knew it was serious.

"I ran inside and the power went off. It was so quick. It was like 'Boom. Done.'," he said.

"It touched down about a mile to a mile-and-a-half from the church," he said, explaining that the tornado generally went through the middle of the town of about 16,000.

"What the town is saying is that most of the people were at the churches when it hit the area that got hit hard. It's leveled. It's unbelievable. At this point, one person has died," he said, marveling that so many were spared a similar fate.

Willard said he went ahead and said Mass in the dark but could hear a few phones signaling incoming calls or text messages.

Of the approximately 1,000 families in the parish, more than 90 had homes leveled or severely damaged.

By Monday, donations of help were pouring in to the parish, which also has a grade school where the items have been dropped off.

"We have tons of food and clothing and people throughout the county have been calling. We have hot food for people who need to come. It's like a shelter during the day." he said.

A few of the donations even came from Holy Cross and St. Matthew's Catholic parish members in Champaign.

Willard said he has a great "core team" of parishioners who sprang to action helping with basics like communication and trying to find housing for others.

"We have that going on right now. There are so many things to do to try to get people lives together. It's amazing how these people have pulled together."

The process has forced him to quickly learn the names of congregants he hadn't yet committed to memory.

On Thursday, the St. Patrick's grade school reopened for classes. 

"It's more in the sense of day care for families," he said of the reopening. "The children are talking about it."

"One little girl in kindergarten said, 'My house got blown away but it's somewhere in Washington.' Another girl said 'God put his hands over our house and my dad was able to drive the tornado away from our house,'" he recounted.

Willard said it's healthy for the children to talk about the trauma but hard not to get emotional while listening.

"I get teary-eyed. I have to keep focused. I gotta' be strong. It's going to hit me sometime," he said.

Willard said several of his Champaign friends who heard him wonder why he was being transferred to Washington have mentioned that they understand now.

"I do believe that. It could be any priest but God wanted me to be here."

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