Sister Martha Keller helps tornado victims find God in the chaos

In November 2021, a disabled parishioner at St. Jerome Parish in the far western Kentucky town of Fancy Farm called the pastoral associate, Ursuline Sister Martha Keller, to volunteer his services.

“He couldn’t find a job, but he wanted to do something. He said he has organizational skills,” Sister Martha said.

When a Dec. 10, 2021, tornado devastated the town of Mayfield – just 12 miles away – Sister Martha, the rest of the St. Jerome staff and countless parishioners leapt into relief action to serve the suddenly homeless people descending on the parish. That parishioner’s organizational skill is being put to good use.

Sister Martha Keller

“People are being given an opportunity to use their gifts and they don’t even realize it,” Sister Martha said. “It’s good to see people doing what they can to make a difference.”

Sister Martha has been pastoral associate at St. Jerome since 2012, but her service to the parish has never before included what she’s done since the morning after the tornado.

“I didn’t know I was in charge until Father (Darrell Venters) told me,” she said. “I’ve never been in this position. It feels like we’re doing the right thing.”

By 7:45 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 11, displaced families began arriving at St. Jerome for temporary shelter in the parish hall. More than 25 people slept on cots provided by the American Red Cross from Saturday until Monday night, when the remaining families were relocated. St. Jerome volunteers worked six-hour shifts round the clock to serve the needs of tornado victims.

St. Martha and Mary Hall at St. Jerome is now serving as a distribution center for donated items in the relief effort – toiletries, food and blankets. The closest shelters are in Wingo, about 20 minutes away.

“We are taking them our food,” she said. “We need people to be available to these families. Wingo asked if we could keep doing the shifts because they were burning out.”

The service at St. Jerome has been twofold. Volunteers have responded to immediate needs of the displaced people while they awaited representatives of the Federal Emergency Management Agency to take charge. They have also offered a “calming, Christian presence” to those traumatized by the devastation, Sister Martha said.

“The parish staff and parishioners were standing by asking ‘what can we do?’ Sister Martha said. “People want to cook, clean and do laundry,” but Sister Martha knew they also needed volunteers to interact with the people.

“I sat and talked with one mother,” Sister Martha said. “She said, ‘I can’t concentrate, all I can think of is my best friend, her 3-year-old daughter was killed.’ We just sat there and cried.”

The St. Jerome RCIA class was scheduled for its regular meeting this week, but Sister Martha had a suggestion of what to do instead of the planned agenda.

“If you want to see our church in action, be prepared to play with the kids,” she told the class. “It was the best RCIA class we’ve ever had.”

A 7-year-old boy was sitting beside Sister Martha, and she began teasing him as if she didn’t know what Christmas was about.

“He said, ‘It’s Jesus’ birthday, you have to celebrate.’ I asked him what I should do?” Sister Martha said. “He said, ‘You celebrate with your family, you open presents, you eat good food. You need to do that.’ We both needed that laugh.”

Four families asked the parishioners to stay in touch with them. “Our parishioners are going to provide Christmas for the families wherever they are. That’s the heart of the people here,” Sister Martha said. St. Jerome has about 500 families in the parish.

The response has weighed on all the volunteers, Sister Martha said.

“One of our parishioners broke down, afraid that we’re going to lose our community, because there won’t be jobs for people,” she said. The prayers of so many people are definitely helping, she said.

“Sunday, I was feeling so overwhelmed and sad. I wondered what would happen to these people,” Sister Martha said. The third Sunday of Advent readings focused on joy, which lifted her spirits.

“One of Father’s favorite parts of Mass is saying ‘Lift up your hearts.’ He said, ‘Today we’re united in our mission. We can rejoice. We’re blessed and able to respond.’ That was helpful.”

Four times Sister Martha has made a mission trip to Mandeville, Jamaica, in the impoverished sister diocese of Owensboro. She has been reminded of the poverty and deprivation she saw on those trips when working with tornado victims.

“I couldn’t even go to Mayfield, I’ve seen the pictures,” she said. “I just remind people that we cannot do large things, but we can do simple things for people.”

Both the volunteers and the displaced have amazed her with their attitudes.

“This community has been so united. There has been nothing but positive comments,” Sister Martha said. “People ask, ‘Can we just start doing this?’ Families were praising God, not complaining. They only had what they had on their backs. It’s amazing what human beings can do during a crisis.”

Her Ursuline community has supported her too, both the Sisters at Maple Mount and on missions. Mayfield’s infrastructure is badly damaged, including no running water. Sister Larraine Lauter, executive director of Water With Blessings, donated 20 water filters and buckets so people can have clean drinking water. She had them delivered to the Mount, and Sister Jacinta Powers delivered them to Fancy Farm.

“We had them by 3 p.m. Sunday,” Sister Martha said. “I’m training a parishioner on how to use the filter.”

Sister Jacinta is a veteran of hurricane relief efforts in Haiti and of serving on the border of Mexico. Sister Larraine has worked humanitarian efforts in Honduras for years and now works with poor countries on helping them get clean water. Both Sisters were helpful to Sister Martha in explaining what to expect next.

“God is taking care of me,” she said. “Our staff has been unreal. This is foreign territory for all of us. We’ve had items come from Canada and California.”

The Red Cross asks that people only donate new items. Mostly what is needed at this point is monetary donations and prayers, Sister Martha said.

The Catholic Charities office with the Diocese of Owensboro is accepting donations for tornado relief through its website: Checks can be mailed to:

Office of Stewardship
600 Locust Street
Owensboro, KY 42301

St. Jerome Parish also has a relief fund, which can be found on its website, Checks can be mailed to:

Tornado Relief Fund
C/O St Jerome Catholic Church
PO Box 38
Fancy Farm, Kentucky 42039-0038