Faith and the B.C. floods – the inspiring response to the storm of the century

St. Anthony of Padua pastor Fr. Dennis Flores and volunteers with one of the truckloads of donations the parish took to stranded travellers in Agassiz, B.C. (Submitted photo - The B.C. Catholic, CCN)

By Terry O’Neill and Bonnie Way, The B.C. Catholic

[Vancouver – Canadian Catholic News] – When Fr. Francis Galvan left Sacred Heart Church in Delta, B.C., Nov. 15 for a priests’ study week in Harrison Hot Springs, he didn’t expect to find himself at the centre of a catastrophic flood and what is being called the storm of the century.

But within hours, the Augustinian priest was at ground zero of rescue efforts and witnessing humanity at its best, joining with Agassiz residents in responding to the needs of stranded travellers.

“There I saw and realized how the human heart in the worst situations comes out its best – eyes looking only at those in need of help,” he told The B.C. Catholic by e-mail.

Fr. Francis Galvan had arrived in Harrison Hot Springs Monday , Nov. 15, only to find the study week cancelled due to torrential rains, so he headed over to St. Anthony of Padua Church in Agassiz to check in with pastor Fr. Dennis Flores. There the two priests saw rescue helicopters flying overhead and decided to head to the town community centre.

They found themselves in the middle of a massive rescue and relief effort. “Strong winds were blowing along with heavy rains, and I watched rescue helicopters landing, one after another, bringing people to the town of Agassiz,” Galvan said.

Emerging from the helicopters were wearing evacuees who had been stranded by mudslides along Hwy. 7.

“I saw exhausted, hungry, and tired people including their children and dogs,” Galvan said. As they were cared for by first responders and volunteers, volunteers at the community centre were busily organizing clothing, food, and water being brought in by Agassiz residents.

A rescue helicopter lands at the community centre in Agassiz, B.C. (Submitted photo – The B.C. Catholic, CCN)

The two priests returned to the rectory to gather more volunteers and then stopped in at the parish thrift store to collect blankets and additional clothing. Using Flores’ truck, they ended up taking three loads of donations to the community centre.

“Thank God for the thrift store because we have so much we can help people with,” said Linda VanScheyndel, a thrift store worker and head of the St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Women’s League. “It’s just amazing how the people in Agassiz have come forward with food, clothing, blankets, places to stay, and for such a small town.”

By mid-afternoon, St. Anthony parishioners were taking evacuees into their homes, including a stranded family unable to return to their home near Vernon.

Allen and Jammeelyn Albert and their two children had been on their way to Mexico for a week-long vacation when they were trapped by the storm. After being stranded on the highway, they were airlifted along with other evacuees to the Agassiz community centre.

A parish host family took them in and Flores accompanied the host father to the thrift store to pick up suitable winter attire for the family, who had packed only light clothing for their tropical getaway.

When the hosts realized they would need a bed, parishioners again stepped up, said Flores. “One of our volunteers said they had one in their house, and they went to Harrison and got the whole bed – the frame, the mattress – and he helped me with my truck to deliver it to the host family.”

When the community learned one of the Alberts’ children would be turning six in a few days, birthday gifts came pouring in for the family. “The host family told me it was just amazing that people who don’t know this girl would celebrate her birthday. All the gifts just came.”

VanScheyndel said the host family themselves are new parishioners, whom she first met earlier this year when Alisha Miller, pregnant with her second child dropped in at the thrift store. Miller had been concerned about her baby after receiving some troubling news from her doctor, and Flores arranged to meet with her. He prayed over her and her baby and gave them his blessing. The baby was born healthy and the Millers are now active parishioners.

As for St. Anthony’s itself, the church has been unaffected by the flooding, and Flores said he was grateful for the generosity he’s seen within the community as it supported those affected by the flooding and landslides.

Galvan made the same observation, saying “One thing I learned from this event is that we cannot underestimate the power of the human heart and its ability to move our bodies, to the point of not thinking of ourselves, but the needs of those who needed it the most.”

The record flooding and devastation affected other churches in the Archdiocese of Vancouver in various ways.

In Abbotsford, B.C., migrant workers who were forced to flee floodwaters are being supported by St. Ann Parish, which has an active pastoral care ministry for Hispanic migrants and a special focus on temporary seasonal farm workers.

“We are looking after the migrant workers who have been transported to the Tradex Centre by the airport,” parish secretary Frances McNeil said. “For now, they are safe, dry, and fed.”

An estimated 200 seasonal farm workers have had to relocate to temporary shelters in the Abbotsford and Chilliwack areas.

McNeil said the parish was relieved to learn that several female Guatemalan farmworkers, supported by the parish, were evacuated from the farm at which they were working and taken to a shelter in Chilliwack, B.C.

Floodwaters forced several St. Ann parishioners to evacuate their dairy farms. “We have had parishioners call to offer help if needed and one has offered his basement for a family to reside until they are able to return home,” McNeil said. The parish centre is also available as an emergency shelter if needed.

At St. Mary Church in Chilliwack, Lise Tetreault was at the centre of relief efforts for 130 displaced male migrant workers from Central America who were being housed temporarily at the city’s Evergreen Hall.

Tetreault, who heads the parish’s eight-person Migrant Ministry team, was helping find better lodgings, at private homes, for the workers, as well as obtaining underwear and socks for the men. Team members also took 11 female workers from Guatemala shopping for essential clothing and toiletries.

“Anything you can do to help them get through it,” she said, noting it was “amazing” to see how the community has come together to support.

Stranded travellers on the floor of a restaurant in Hope. (Photo by Sue Sawatzky, the B.C. Catholic – CCN)

In Hope, B.C., where some 1,200 motorists and truckers were stranded because of washed-out and flooded highways, Our Lady of Good Hope parishioners were doing what they could to help. Michelle LaBossiere said individual members of the parish were supporting relief efforts by donating food and services to stranded travellers. “Our town, as a whole, is very generous, especially in these situations,” LaBossiere said.

At the church itself, Fr. Gordon Cook, OMI, said the parish made its parking lot and washroom facilities available for stranded travellers. He wasn’t able to open the parish hall due to lack of staffing and because the church itself had been without power from Sunday night to Monday night. “The hall, the rectory, the church, everything was just freezing cold in here,”  Cook said. “There was no way I could have allowed anyone in here.”

Cook has been able to check in on most of his parishioners by phone. At least one parishioner had been flooded out of her home and forced to seek refuge with family.

The parish hall, church, and rectory were untouched by the high waters, but the unprecedented crisis has rattled the parish.

“I’ve been here eight-and-a-half years, and I’ve never seen a situation like we’ve got now,” Cook said. “Right now Hope is like an island. We’re cut off from everything. Nothing can come in, and nothing can go out. It’s just cut off completely.”

Catholic schools in the Fraser Valley were closed all week after the record-setting rain made roads impassable, preventing school buses from bringing students as far as Chilliwack.

A handful of churches around the archdiocese reported flooding from the rainstorms, including St. Andrew Kim in Surrey, Holy Name of Jesus in Vancouver, and St. Mary in Vancouver.