CLOVERDALE, Ohio — Today, Christmas comes to Cloverdale.
Not exactly as it has before, but in a way that warms the hearts of the faithful at St. Barbara Catholic Church.
Days before the holiday dawned, before today’s 8 a.m. Mass in a makeshift sanctuary, Christmas spirit radiated from the rubble of a Nov. 17 tornado.
The storm destroyed the 1958 church, the only one in this Putnam County village of 167. It left standing the adjacent parish hall, a nondescript brick box that in the following days served as a community hub for emergency responders and American Red Cross assistance efforts.
A week after the storm blew through, the hall was repurposed again to host St. Barbara’s first service since the church was lost.
Parishioners gathered here throughout Advent for regular Masses, and members will come again today to celebrate the good news of Christ’s birth.
In a season of joy, they are thankful.
During December, a month for giving, they feel blessed to receive.
“Christ is the greatest gift,” said the Rev. Jerry Schetter, pastor of St. Barbara. “We kind of reflect on that aspect of Christmas.”
Work began almost immediately to clean up the church grounds after the tornado, one of five that ripped through northwest Ohio on Nov. 17. In Cloverdale, the twister damaged or demolished more than 30 of the village’s 67 residences. Thirteen of those houses were destroyed outright by winds estimated at up to 130 miles per hour.
Boards still cover the windows of some homes, and construction equipment moves about backyards.
For those who worship at St. Barbara, it was important to resume services in the temporary site after the storm’s decimation. Now they are praying that they will be able to rebuild.
“It was home; it was home. My husband passed away five years ago, and that was my outlet. When I walked in I thought, ‘This is heaven.’ I miss it; I miss it a lot,” said Theresa Becker of Cloverdale.
Ms. Becker’s life, like many in this village, is intertwined with the church. She was married in 1946 in the old church, which was replaced by the one now lost. Her son was the second child to be baptized in the church that was ruined by the tornado.
The destruction still makes her sad, but those feelings are matched by gratefulness that no one was killed in the storm and appreciation for people who helped turn the parish hall into an interim church.
“We have so much to be thankful for. We could have all been in church,” she said. “Just thanksgiving, thanksgiving, thanksgiving.”
Father Schetter said the best way to heal is to realize what you need most to recover. For the St. Barbara community, the answer is simple: “You need our Lord Jesus Christ the most to help you heal.”
“So it was essential that we were able to gather here in the hall to be able to come together so that we could celebrate the holy sacrifice of the Mass and begin that healing process,” he said.
Work continues to clear stacks of bricks and comb through church wreckage that Father Schetter hopes is mostly removed by the new year.
Among the treasures retrieved was the tabernacle — dented and scratched but still functional — holding the blessed sacrament.
The bell tower still stands, and hints of Christmas are visible around the site.
Last week, Drew Altenburger operated an excavator as it clawed through the debris, now surrounded by an orange construction fence.
A stuffed Santa Claus, which Mr. Altenburger had spotted earlier amid bits of building material, was tied to the door of his excavator.
Inside the parish hall, a dozen heads bowed in prayerful silence. Outside the windowless walls, the rumbling excavator punctuated the quiet of a weekday Mass. A scripture reader quoted the book of Isaiah. The promise: A young woman shall give birth to a son, and he shall be called Emmanuel.
The parish hall has a cafeteria counter in the back and stackable chairs instead of pews. There’s no stained glass or kneelers. But each seat had a hymnal, and the candles near the altar were lit.
“It’s like a bittersweet ... type of thing. You’re glad to see them move forward to rectify and rebuild, but then again you’ve got so many memories going in the dump truck,” said Cloverdale Mayor Judd Spencer, a member of St. Barbara.
The village also is trying to recover, an effort aided by about $39,000 in donations for the Cloverdale Community Long Term Recovery Task Force, an offshoot of an existing Putnam County fund.
A board will review requests to see what needs it can meet, such as helping pay rent for those who lost their homes or assisting with insurance deductibles. The fund continues to accept donations at Huntington Bank branches in the county, Fort Jennings State Bank, or by check to the November 17th Recovery Fund, P.O. Box 472, Ottawa, Ohio, 45875.
The church and its roughly 360 members remain a key part of Cloverdale, a fixed element providing continuity amid chaos. Father Schetter said a St. Barbara committee will look at the feasibility of building another church, parishioners’ cooperation, design plans, and the congregation’s future needs. It could take a year or longer to complete all construction-related steps.
St. Barbara established its own fund to help rebuild, and the church also was insured.
“We have to be able to look forward to the future. So with faith we look forward to the future so we are progressing towards rebuilding,” Father Schetter said. “We want our church back. It was here on November the 16th. Why can’t it be here next November the 16th?”