The thought St. Joseph Catholic Church in Ridgway would one day be destroyed by a tornado was unlikely at the time Monsignor Joseph Lawler became pastor there in 1977.
Lawler had experienced the aftermath of a natural disaster before in the form of an earthquake rated at 7.5 on the Richter Scale that struck Guatemala 4 a.m. Feb. 4, 1976.
“Two other priests and myself volunteered to see what we could do,” Lawler said.
They drove the epic journey of 3,330 miles in a truck. They bought 11 acres of land and began a project of building houses.
“It took a year and four months to get the job done,” Lawler said.
They hired 18 workers at a pay rate of $2 a day.
“If we paid more there would be a riot to work for us,” he said.
People had been living in makeshift shelters of cardboard in the city park. He would return to Guatemala three times.
Lawler was asked to become Dean of the East Deanery, a position that made him the intermediary between about 14 priests in the counties served by the Belleville Diocese and the Bishop of the Diocese.
Lawler became St. Joseph’s pastor in Ridgway in 1977, moving in from Flora and the St. Joseph Catholic School was operating at that time. The staff consisted of three nuns as teachers and two lay people for the four classrooms.
“It was difficult to operate a school, but we made it happen for six years. We couldn’t hire a janitor so we took a couple of high school kids who came in to mop the floors,” Lawler said.
In 1983 Lawler moved from Ridgway to Piopolis about 7 miles north of McLeansboro where he remained for 28 years before retiring a year and a half ago.
“It was summer of 2011 after 50 years in the priesthood,” Lawler said.
Lawler recalled some of his experiences Friday in an impromptu interview during a meeting of the St. Joseph — now St. Kateri — parishioners at St. Joseph Gym. The tornado that destroyed the church was fresh in the minds of those attending. The business of the day was to hear an update on the rebuilding project from the church’s current pastor, the Rev. Steven Beatty.
Lawler lives near Pond Settlement Church a few miles west of Ridgway.
“That morning my brother called at 4 a.m.,” he said.
His brother said to get out of bed, get dressed and get in the basement.
As the storm passed Lawler heard a sound of metal banging. Later he learned it was a piece of Bill Wargel’s shed blown miles from Ridgway into the yard.
He traveled to Ridgway when the sun came out. Debris made travel through town difficult, but he reached St. Joseph Church.
“There were lots of people on the west side of the church crying. To see 70 year old ladies crying was something new in my vocabulary,” Lawler said.
He said the bricks that lay everywhere were 120 years old and were set in such a way that the entire structure collapsed.
“Once it got off kilter it was history,” he said.
The slate roof slid through the breezeway into the west side of the rectory. Lawler always slept on that side of the rectory during his year’s at Ridgway. Beatty, however, had chosen the east side for sleeping and he was not hurt.
Lawler experienced a tornado in Piopolis in 1996.
“It took eight windows out of the rectory I was in. I was holding onto the iron radiator. There was glass everywhere,” he said.
No one was hurt in that tornado.
Though in retirement, Lawler is “pinch hitting.” He fills in for priests in Christopher, Sesser and Buckner.