As the Marshall Fire whipped through Boulder County on Dec. 30 and scorched over 1,000 homes and businesses, the local Church had but one choice: to respond.
The day after, Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila announced the launch of a Fire and Disaster Relief Fund to provide immediate assistance to those directly affected by the Marshall Fire. The fund was seeded with $250,000 thanks to generous donations to the Archbishop’s Catholic Appeal. To date, the fund has raised over $1 million and is being distributed to those who are in need through collaboration between representatives of the parishes in the area, the Archdiocese of Denver and Catholic Charities.
To coordinate efforts of the local parishes, a committee of area parish and community members was formed to promptly act when an inquiry of need was brought forward, and Deacon Jim Mackin of Sacred Heart of Mary Parish in Boulder was appointed the de facto head of this committee.
“It feels much like the early church, of here’s what’s happening in front of us, what do we do? And you do what’s in front of you,” Deacon Mackin told the Denver Catholic.
The parish communities that were most affected by the Marshall Fire include St. Louis in Louisville, Immaculate Conception in Lafayette, Nativity of Our Lord in Broomfield, and Sacred Heart of Mary, St. Martin de Porres and St. Thomas Aquinas parishes in Boulder. Deacon Mackin said they’ve identified roughly 50 parishioners who have lost their homes. Assistance is available to any affected community members who may inquire.
The committee serves multiple purposes. Firstly, it allows for subsidiarity to be practiced, thus eliminating layers of bureaucracy that can oftentimes stall the distribution of emergency funds in cases like this. If someone on the committee is approached with a short term, urgent need, they are free to have a discussion and decide right then and there to provide assistance. The same is true of any of the pastors at the area parishes; the parishes are in constant communication with each other and are working together to ensure the needs of the community are met.
The committee is additionally intended to help provide oversight and avoid errors, including the possibility of someone defrauding the fund, which has been known to happen in similar disaster scenarios.
In consulting with experts in disaster assistance from Catholic Charities, Deacon Mackin explained how in situations like this, they can predict what the needs will be only to a point. There is usually an influx of needs at the beginning of a disaster, a lull in the middle as recovery needs are met by other agencies, and then a final influx towards the end as disaster recovery efforts near completion.
Bearing this in mind as they respond to assistance inquiries, Deacon Mackin wants to reassure those who have generously contributed that the funds are being and will continue to be put to good use.
“Everyone’s funds are in good shape,” Deacon Mackin assured. “We’re waiting for the people to tell us what they want. That’s really what it comes down to. We’re waiting for them to come and tell us what they want because as the Church, we can do things that other groups can’t.”
In addition to remaining approachable, however, the committee has also been proactive. Louisville and the affected areas have long garnered a reputation as a tight-knit, neighborly community, and this fact has been made even more evident in the active outreach by the parishes to identify those families and other members of the community who may have needs in the wake of the fire but are unsure of where to start.
“A strong sense of community existed in this area before the fires, and that community spirit has blossomed in this crisis” said Deacon Dan McConville of St. Louis Parish in Louisville, who lost his home in the Marshall Fire. “In addition to the many donations that poured in, we have been blessed with the amazing missionary spirit of our volunteers who continue to reach out to others – friends, neighbors, strangers – to see if they are okay and to try to help us identify needs. They have been wonderful connectors between the parish and the larger community. The people of St. Louis and the surrounding parishes have been amazing examples of Christian care for those in need.”
An outpouring of responses
In the days and weeks that followed the fire, the community mobilized. Parishes held second collections to gather additional relief funds. People donated money not only from all around Colorado and the U.S., but even from other parts of the world. Restaurants offered free meals to those who lost everything. St. Louis Parish received an influx of material donations from the surrounding community, and effectively turned their basement into a store for people to come and get what they need.
Catholic Charities had a presence at the disaster assistance center that was established in Lafayette immediately following the fire. Joan Cernich, who regularly works for Catholic Charities’ development team, has become involved in fire and disaster relief efforts to her previous experience leading flood recovery efforts for Catholic Charities after the 2013 floods in Colorado.
“We were at the Disaster Assistance Center, which is where anybody who was affected by the fire could file a claim,” Cernich told the Denver Catholic. “We were handing out gift cards and meeting with people to get an understanding of what their experiences were and what their needs might have been. We had three deacons who were there specifically offering spiritual care and praying with people that needed that. We met with probably a couple hundred people through doing that and wanted to connect people with their parishes, for sure, but also just be present to the larger community.”
Cernich said that the majority of people they met at the disaster assistance center were not affiliated with a parish, and that the most immediate needs were related to housing. Many people already have places to stay, but there are still those who may need help paying for a hotel while they sort out insurance claims. Additionally, for those whose home was damaged or lost, the owners still have to pay their mortgage while working through their insurance claims, and that’s on top of paying for a hotel or another housing option. Cernich said there is a need there as well.
“Most people are not in a position where they can pay both at the same time and usually pay one or the other, and you’re leveraged well enough that you don’t just have that extra amount of money. So that’s where the rental assistance comes in,” she said.”
Another population that Catholic Charities is assisting is those who own mobile homes. Though mobile home communities were largely unaffected by the fire, the hurricane-force winds on the day of the fire caused damage to roofs and the exterior which exposed water pipes that froze during the cold snap the following day and caused flooding. The owners of these homes generally do not have discretionary income to address this damage, Cernich said, and need assistance to help pay for repairs.
“That’s something that we’re definitely attentive to and potentially working with,” she said. “There’s a number of nonprofit volunteer agencies that have come into the area that can be helping out in terms of repairs, looking at helping pay for materials with them or working with contractors as well.”
In collaboration with the area parishes, Catholic Charities continues to direct those in need of assistance to the proper avenues, whether it be through the efforts and resources at the parish level or through the various non-profits and government agencies that are also providing aid. Regardless of who you are, there are plenty of ways to help and get involved, and Deacon Mackin proposed that this disaster, tragic and difficult as it is, presents an opportunity to be the hands and feet of Christ to the neighbors in our own community.
“There’s this great mixture of things we can do, like flowers in a garden,” Deacon Mackin said. “There’s all kinds of flowers in the garden. Are you a daisy? Are you a chrysanthemum? A rose? Are you a violet? Doesn’t matter. You’re adding to the beauty of that garden. There’s all kinds of things people are trying to do, and I would encourage them that this is an opportunity to maybe raise your level of charity in your life.”
Visit: ccdenver.org/marshallfire and fill out the form
A Case Manager will get in touch and help you through the process
sacredheartofmary.org/marshall-fire has links for volunteer opportunities and other wildfire resources.