Tearful parishioners celebrate return to Mass at tornado-damaged St. Hyacinth Church

February 14, 2023

Father Reginald Samuels, pastor of St. Hyacinth Catholic Church in Deer Park, preaches the homily during the first Mass at the southeast Houston parish after an EF-3 category tornado shredded the parish campus with up to 140 mph winds. (Courtesy photo and by Jo Ann Zuniga/Herald)

DEER PARK - Five days after an EF-3 tornado wrecked St. Hyacinth Catholic Church in Deer Park, about 400 St. Hyacinth parishioners, some whose own homes were damaged by the tornado chewing up a 19-mile swath of destruction, carefully made their way through the church parking lot to celebrate a return to Mass.

Parking between debris piles, dump trucks and remediation vehicles, they gathered inside to start with a usual processional song that held even more meaning after the trauma. “Here I am, Lord. Is it I, Lord?...I will go, Lord, if You lead me. I will hold Your people in my heart.”

Father Samuels, told the crowd, “First of all, I want to give thanks to God that we all are here,” and the parishioners burst out in applause.
“I also thank all of you who show support not only for our parish, but for our community,” Father Samuels said as he introduced Deer Park Mayor Jerry Mouton Jr. in attendance at the 10 a.m. Mass Jan. 29.

The pastor preached on the Gospel that day of Jesus teaching the Beatitudes to the crowds in Matthew 5:1-12 that begins, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted.”

In his homily, Father Samuels added, “No matter the storm or whatever we go through in life, God is with us, and we are blessed.”

Parishioner Margie Gulledge, a St. Hyacinth church member for more than 40 years, dabbed tears from her bright blue eyes. “I was part of the committee and remember when we built the addition of the educational building. Seeing it damaged this way breaks my heart.”

That religious education building, physically connected to the church by a hallway, completely lost its roof, ripped off by 100-mile-per-hour winds, exposing classrooms to the open sky. Those classrooms which would have been filled with children and adults meeting to learn faith formation if the storm had happened on a Sunday.

Deacon Charles Pitman and his wife Pamella Pitman, the church’s director of Liturgy and music, were among those staff members cringing in the hallway during the storm. They held on to each other as they prayed the “Hail Mary,” throughout the loud crashing, windows breaking and debris banging from the tornado swirling over them.

“Afterward, I was rummaging through my purse in my office looking for my Rosary so we could continue to pray. My husband said, ‘Look inside the bottom of your bag.’ When I peered in, there was a pile of broken glass pieces that had fallen inside during the storm. But I didn’t get cut up digging around unknowingly in it, thanks be to God,” she said. “Angels were protecting us.”

The National Weather Service upgraded their preliminary rating to an EF3 tornado, with an estimated maximum path length of 18 miles, a maximum width of .66 miles, and speeds between 136 and a maximum of 140 mph — a rarity in South Texas. There were no fatalities, and only one non-life-threatening injury reported.

At the end of Mass as people trailed off to resume their own clean-up, the recessional hymn rang out, “Be not afraid. I go before you always. Come follow me and I will give you rest.”

Father Samuels said the church will continue celebrating at least one Mass at 10 a.m. Sundays, which will also be livestreamed on its website sthyacinth.org/livestream-mass-and-liturgies. But all other parish activities have been postponed.

Although the church has power thanks to generators, the HVAC systems were damaged so air conditioning and heating are not working in the church, he said. Wearing a white construction hat, he is still helping to direct contractors to repair what is most in need.

“There was considerable damage to all the buildings on the complex,” the pastor said. “We currently do not have any Church systems in place, no phone system or computers online.”

They are working to implement a temporary office and are asking for patience from the public.

As he has stated in media interviews with the Houston Chronicle, Channel 13 and other local outlets, Father Samuels said, “I ask for everyone to please continue to support St. Hyacinth. The tornado has gone away, but the tornado did not stop bills. Please continue to pray as we move to recovery.”

To learn more about helping St. Hyacinth, visit sthyacinth.org.