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Grotto Honoring First Responders To Replace Church Lost In Naplate Tornado

Natural disasters can be devastating for small communities.  Not only can people lose their lives and homes, but vital links to the community can be lost forever.  WNIJ’s Chase Cavanaugh has more on how the village of Naplate is keeping one memory alive. 

On Feb. 28, 2017, an EF-3 tornado swept through LaSalle County. Parts of Ottawa suffered damage, but the village of Naplate was hit the hardest.  Many homes were damaged or destroyed, and there was debris from the nearby glass factory.  Father David Kipfer is a Catholic priest and pastor of the Ottawa parishes. He says Naplate was home to St. Mary’s Catholic Church, and during the disaster, first responders had their hands full.

“There was glass from the Pilkington [factory] all over the community. They didn’t know who might have been injured, who was in their homes, with tree damage and home damage," he said.

Unfortunately, the building was damaged enough by the tornado that that the Diocese of Peoria said it should be demolished. 

“It’s difficult when people have a history there, of families, baptisms, weddings, funerals, their children and grandchildren,” Kipfer said.

The land was still under the control of the Peoria Diocese, and would default to the nearby St. Francis Catholic Church. But Kipfer felt it was important to keep an active worship site in the community.

“We thought there should be something on the ground that was left after the church, and it just kind of came by discussion of people bringing it up and I think Bill Mucci was one of the first to say, “can we have something, maybe a shrine to the Blessed Mother where the Church of St. Mary stood?””

Mucci is a trustee at St. Francis and a parishioner that worked with the Diocese on the demolition of St. Mary’s. He says despite the tornado damage, a surprising amount of the church was salvageable.

“We started collecting the altar. We took out the Stations of the Cross. We took out some stained glass. We started saving things, hoping we can incorporate it in the new grotto," he said.

The grotto will be dedicated to St. Mary, but isn’t limited in scope to local parishioners.  Fr. Kipfer wanted to give particular attention to those who helped out the most during the tornado.

“It’s open now to everyone in the area in north-central Illinois that want to pray for first responders, to those people who’ve dedicated, many of them, their vocation and their life to helping others in emergencies.”

Kipfer says despite the lack of a Catholic Church in Naplate, parishioners haven’t wandered far.  The priest says many have joined his other parishes in Ottawa, such as St. Francis, St. Columba, and  St. Patrick.

“They’re commitment to their faith really is an example to everyone in this community," he said. "They are, I think, getting settled or going to other parishes and bringing their gifts and talents to those parishes.” 

Kipfer, Mucci, and Msgr. Phillip Halfacre broke ground on the grotto June 14th, and construction of the building continues. Mucci hopes it can be completed by the end of the summer. 

“Our vision is right around Sept. 8. That would be our Blessed Mother’s birthday, and that’s what we’re shooting for. The contractors are thinking we’re going to be able to hit that date.” 

Once it’s done, the Naplate grotto will be dedicated to emergency workers, especially those who aided the village during the 2017 tornado. The Catholic community also wants to keep it an active worship site, with outdoor rites in honor of the Virgin Mary.  But for many local residents, Mucci, says it will ultimately serve as continuity, both for the former church and Naplate itself.   

“They’re getting a closure to their church and it’s given them something to look forward to, and to be able to go on that site and pray, and do the Rosary or however they want to spend time there.”

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