St. Mary Parish escaped the firestorm, and reaches out to help those who did not
By Bill Brewer
Photography by Stephanie Richer
St. Mary Parish was ground zero in the wildfires that devastated parts of Sevier County on Nov. 28, 2016. And while flames reached to within yards of the Gatlinburg church, it was spared. Some parishioners, though, weren’t as fortunate.
Like 14,000 other residents of and visitors to the tourist destination, Father Antony Punnackal, CMI, was forced to evacuate Gatlinburg in the early evening of Nov. 28 as fires fueled by hurricane-force winds swept across mountainsides in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The fires jumped ridgelines; burning embers took flight and set fire wherever they landed. Gatlinburg and parts of Pigeon Forge were suddenly in harm’s way, forcing an unprecedented evacuation of the community.
The intense flames came within 300 yards of St. Mary, which sits in the heart of Gatlinburg. The church and rectory sustained some smoke damage and were closed until the weekend of Dec. 10-11, when Masses could resume.
The wildfires have resulted in more than a dozen deaths, injuries to nearly 200 people, damage or destruction to some 2,400 structures, and about 18,000 acres scorched. Two juveniles were charged in December with arson in connection with a fire in the Chimney Tops area of the national park that spawned the Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge fires.
Emergency officials and meteorologists describe conditions on Nov. 28 in the national park as the perfect firestorm: drought conditions, dry trees and leaf litter to act as kindling, and fierce winds to fuel the combustible mix. Wind gusts nearing 90 mph raged all day and into the night in the Smokies.
The fires decimated everything in their path: homes, condominiums, chalets, cabins, apartments, businesses, automobiles. YouTube was populated with harrowing cell phone videos of people fleeing, blinded by thick, suffocating smoke, many of them unsure if they would make it out alive. Some of them described the situation as escaping the “gates of hell,” and running through “rivers of fire.”
Survivors told of chilling escapes, walking, running, and driving through flames to reach safety.
As long lines of vehicles exited Gatlinburg and surrounding areas, shelters were set up to accommodate those displaced, which numbered as many as 2,000 at one point.
Father Punnackal was one of the displaced. The St. Mary pastor described how he managed to get out of Gatlinburg as fires closed in. He made it to a motel outside of the resort town along Highway 321, which leads to Pittman Center, Cosby, and Newport. But as he prepared to settle in, a wildfire began threatening the motel, which was forced to evacuate to nearby shelters.
Father Punnackal eventually landed at Good Shepherd Church in Newport.
Natural disasters are nothing new to Father Punnackal. So when the fires began burning everything in their path around Gatlinburg, the priest was prepared to minister to members of his St. Mary Parish.
In 2012, when Father Punnackal was pastor at St. Alphonsus Parish in Crossville, a tornado struck the area, causing several deaths and property damage. A number of St. Alphonsus parishioners were affected. He helped lead a relief effort in conjunction with Catholic Charities of East Tennessee.
Father Punnackal’s determination to minister to his members, then and now, was apparent Dec. 4, when he joined Father Andres Cano, pastor of Holy Cross Parish in Pigeon Forge, for Mass at Holy Cross.
Bishop Richard F. Stika celebrated the Mass for victims of the fires as Father Cano, Father Punnackal, Father David Boettner, rector of Sacred Heart Cathedral, and Cardinal Justin Rigali concelebrated. Deacon Sean Smith, diocesan chancellor, and Deacon Steve May of Holy Cross assisted.
In his homily, Bishop Stika said the loss that Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge are experiencing is akin to what Chattanooga went through when five members of the military were gunned down in July 2015 in an apparent act of terrorism. At that time, the Chattanooga community rallied together around the theme “Chattanooga Strong.”
“A community comes together. That’s the beauty in what I have discovered about East Tennessee, the Volunteer State, neighbors, and being neighborly. It’s real here. People are concerned about one another. And people are willing to pitch in and help,” Bishop Stika said. “It’s not just Tennessee, but this is our neighborhood. This is our home. It’s neighbor taking care of neighbor.”
“Isn’t that what church is?” he added.
Bishop Stika talked of redemptive suffering, the Christian belief that human suffering can be offered up in union with the Passion of Jesus for the sins or the physical or spiritual needs of self or someone else.
“Redemptive suffering is carrying our crosses, our holy cross,” he said. “Every day is a new invitation for us to live our faith. The season of Advent is the season of hope, of knowing that we do live in a sinful world, that there is evil in the world, that there are disasters in the world.”
He reminded parishioners of the Divine Mercy message, “Jesus, I trust in you.”
The bishop consoled members of the two churches, acknowledging that no one may have answers as to why so many lost loved ones, homes, belongings, jobs.
“We may not have all the answers right now. We may not ever know why this happened in Gatlinburg in 2016. But what I do know is people are involved, people are in need, and Jesus invites us to be present to them as Jesus,” the bishop said.
Bishop Stika reassured the victims of the fires that the Diocese of Knoxville will be with them now, and six months from now when much of the attention goes away.
“Life goes on and it gets busy. But we must remember here, neighbor to neighbor, that we have to continue to assist. I can assure you that the Catholic Diocese of Knoxville and these charitable organizations that we are working with, like Catholic Charities of East Tennessee and the St. Mary’s Legacy Foundation, we’re going to continue to be here and be present,” he said.
He asked the parishioners what their responses will be. “I am going to remind the diocese time and time and time again that we are mandated by Jesus to continue our response.”
“We do together what we can’t do by ourselves. That’s church. This is what I want you to know. People love you. They might not understand about this particular disaster, especially if you are running away from fire and wondering what you have to go back to. But we are inspired by the Holy Spirit to help one another. That is the message. Carry that within your heart. As difficult as it might be today, as difficult as it might be in these next weeks or months, life will go on. And we will rebuild, because, Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, Sevier County, we’re strong,” he said, referring to a rebuilding theme called “Smokies Strong” and “Mountain Tough.”
After Mass, Father Punnackal met with St. Mary members in the Holy Cross nave to give and receive updates on the church building and church members.
“I wanted to know how they’re doing, what was lost, who was lost, what happened to the church,” Father Punnackal said. “As a family, if one hurts, we all hurt.”
“I know of 16 families in our parish that lost everything,” he added. “Several of them lived in apartments that burned to the ground. They lost their housing and all their belongings. They’re also jobless because the businesses where they worked burned.”
And like Father Punnackal, Father Cano has been ministering to his members, a number of whom have lost everything: homes, belongings, and jobs.
“Evacuees from Gatlinburg and affected areas have been receiving help (food, clothing, etc.) in shelters set up by the American Red Cross. … Many people are showing solidarity and generosity toward the people affected by the fires,” Father Cano said. “Many businesses are burned down, and many people have lost their jobs. There is a long-time recovery ahead for the people and the local community.”
One of the families Father Cano is ministering to is Edwin and Denise Betoski. The couple, who live in Wears Valley outside of Pigeon Forge, lost their home Nov. 28 when strong winds blew down a tree that took down power lines. A downed transformer caused a small fire in the grass where it landed. However, the winds turned the grass fire into a raging inferno.
The longtime Holy Cross parishioners rescued a wheelchair-bound neighbor and fled to safety in their car. As they left, their house was aflame.
Father Punnackal, with Father Cano, is again relying on Catholic Charities to offer relief for fire victims. The Diocese of Knoxville is responding, committing funds of more than $200,000 to the effort through Catholic Charities, the St. Mary’s Legacy Foundation, the Fund for East Tennessee Wildfire Victims, donations from second collections at diocesan Masses, and additional donations from schools, groups, and individuals. That amount is in addition to $735,000 that the St. Mary’s Legacy Foundation will distribute to charities and nonprofit groups in East Tennessee during 2017.
Also as part of the relief effort, the St. Mary’s Legacy Clinic was dispatched to Sevier County to offer free medical care to the public.
“We are coordinating these relief efforts with the St. Mary’s Legacy Foundation and Catholic Charities of East Tennessee to assess the need and get resources to these people who need it,” Bishop Stika said. “It just shows that the Catholic Church is the face and hands of Jesus. Together, with the Holy Spirit, we can overcome anything.”
Bishop Stika urged anyone interested in donating to the Gatlinburg-Pigeon Forge relief effort to go to the Diocese of Knoxville website, dioknox.org, for more information.
Sevier County native Dolly Parton announced her My People Foundation was giving $1,000 a month in assistance to people affected by the wildfires, which also destroyed a number of cabins near the Dollywood theme park. The theme park itself was not damaged in the fires, according to Dollywood officials. Mrs. Parton also led a telethon in Nashville to raise money for relief efforts.
And the Zac Brown Band, popular country music artists, headlined an all-day festival called the “Gatlinburg Mountain Tough Benefit” in downtown Gatlinburg on Dec. 17 to raise money for relief efforts.
East Tennesseans began donating needed items to the Sevier County relief effort early on Nov. 29, and those donations have continued. Sacred Heart Cathedral began an immediate drive to collect bottled water, food, and clothing that turned into a multi-day effort. Those donated goods were delivered to the National Guard Armory in Sevier County, just outside of Pigeon Forge, where Guard troops assisted in the relief effort. Diocese of Knoxville schools also took part in collecting donations.
Bishop Stika said offers for assistance came into the diocese from around the country, including from Archbishop Paul Etienne of Anchoarage, Alaska, who oversees the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Catholic Home Missions effort, and the Archdiocese of New Orleans. He said Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of the Archdiocese of Louisville assisted in getting information out about the relief effort.
Father Boettner has been working with the priests and parishioners of St. Mary and Holy Cross to get them the assistance they need. Despite the devastation, he is confident the popular tourist destination will rebound.
“It is tourism that built this area, and it is tourism that will bring it back,” Father Boettner said. “Dolly Parton, to her credit, has reinvested in her home community. The immediate need was emergency assistance. Now that has shifted to long-term needs, getting people back into housing, to get these folks back on their feet and rebuilding the community.”
Father Boettner said the response has shown the “beautiful faith and hope” of people that arise in times of crisis, both in victims and people offering assistance.
“I’m really proud of our Catholic community and the people who have joined us in trying to help our brothers and sisters. I’m just really proud to be able to represent our Church and be a face of Christ to people who are in need,” he added.
Father Boettner said it is important for the members of St. Mary and Holy Cross, as well as everyone in Sevier County, to know they are not alone, that many people are praying for them and offering to help.
“First it was just immediate emergency supplies for the firefighters and first responders, and then it shifted into emergency supplies for those who had been evacuated, and now the view is shifting to long-term needs. How are we going to help and care for the folks who now have to rebuild their lives? That’s going to be a slow process. It’s similar to the aftermath of a hurricane or tornado, where once the cameras are off, people think the issue is over with. This issue is not going to be over with for a year or more. It’s going to be a long-term need for recovery and rebuilding,” he said.
Gatlinburg, a city of 5,000 residents whose population swells during peaks in the tourism seasons, was completely closed until Dec. 7, when residents and business owners were allowed to return. Two days later, the community was reopened to the public.
Rainfall, absent from the area for months, finally returned Nov. 29 and continued into December, providing much-needed relief for firefighters from across the United States marshaled to battle the blazes.
Rescue personnel continued their search for fatalities and dozens of people reported missing in the days following the fires.
As 2017 dawns, the promise of a new tourism season arrives, and the people of Sevier County hope to get back to normal, or as close to normal as possible in the wake of the worst fires in Tennessee in more than a century. It may be a new normal.
Father Punnackal is optimistic. St. Mary, a Smoky Mountains sanctuary, withstood the danger and will serve as a beacon of hope.
“It is a season of hope. We all need prayers, but God saved our holy place,” Father Punnackal said.
Emily Booker contributed to this story.