Cynthia Stanley drops a fire relief donation into a basket at Sacred Heart Parish Sept. 20. (Ed Langlois/Catholic Sentinel)
Cynthia Stanley drops a fire relief donation into a basket at Sacred Heart Parish Sept. 20. (Ed Langlois/Catholic Sentinel)
MEDFORD — After the Spanish Mass Sept. 20 at Sacred Heart Parish here, Archbishop Alexander Sample passed along a fire relief check from Holy Trinity Parish in Beaverton in the amount of $10,000.

That adds to the thousands of dollars donated by Southern Oregon Catholics to help peers who lost their homes in the region’s devastating Almeda Fire. A large wicker contribution basket stands in front of the altar at Sacred Heart.

“I try to have a 24-hour turnaround,” said Father Ken Sampson, pastor of Sacred Heart, which saw 150 parishioners lose homes, many of them Hispanics of modest means. “As soon as we get a contribution, we get it out to the families.”

Some households who lived in mobile homes had in the past been turned down for homeowners insurance, leaving them financially devastated.

“After the initial shock, I think it’s beginning to sink in for everyone what a long, hard road back it’s going to be,” said Ann Brophy, pastoral associate at Sacred Heart.

Sacred Heart offered its parish hall and gym for many evacuees and is now housing several families in former rectories. One parishioner — Aimee Arnold — put together an extensive list of resources throughout the Rogue Valley and updates it every 24 hours.

Medford’s St. Vincent de Paul Society had already been in high gear during the pandemic but is doing even more now for fire victims. There is a center for showers and laundry, plus food and clothing. The society serves a lunch five days a week and has been distributing gift cards. Providence Health and Services donated $25,000 for St. Vincent de Paul fire relief efforts.

“We have been doing our very best; it’s a fast-moving situation,” society president John Vinatieri said Sept. 19. Vinatieri said the organization could use more volunteers.

Immediately after the fires, Jackson County and the American Red Cross set up an evacuation center at the county fairgrounds. Hundreds of people were fed and sheltered there but the numbers have dropped as victims move in with friends and relatives.

Gina Bishop, shelter supervisor for the Red Cross who traveled from her home in North Carolina, says she has heard many heartbreaking stories, including from a man who lost his wife recently and then watched his home burn, getting out only five minutes before the flames arrived.

The fairgrounds center offered medical and mental health help as well. Laurie Hultquist, a counselor with Options for Southern Oregon, said victims at first sought food shelter and water but will soon need to work through loss and grief. Families, and towns, will suffer financial stress, Hultquist said. She said that disasters often hit low-income families because they live in neighborhoods more prone to hazards and dangers. She called that a “social justice problem.” She urges civic leaders to work for ways to extend insurance to more mobile home owners.

Catholic parishes in Southern Oregon are among the most cooperative in the archdiocese, with an active vicariate structure. Parishes in Roseburg, Grants Pass, Shady Cove and Central Point have come forward to help.

Among the most creative and tastiest aid is that being organized by Ramiro and Beatriz Padilla, longtime owners of El Tapatio restaurant in Ashland.

The Padillas, members of Our Lady of the Mountain Parish, closed their restaurant to guests and instead are offering free food to those affected by the fires. At the same time, the El Tapatio parking lot has become a drop-off and distribution center for water, clothing and other supplies fire victims might need. The Padillas even have a team helping people find housing.

Catholic Charities of Oregon has mobilized to help fire victims around the state. “With your continued support and solidarity, Catholic Charities will be able to serve our brothers and sisters in need with the tools and resources necessary to face the tremendous challenges ahead,” said a note to supporters from Deacon Rick Birkel, executive director of Catholic Charities.

The Archdiocese of Portland has established a Wildfire Relief Fund to support evacuees with housing and food as well as parishes and schools severely affected. Mail donations directly to Carmen Gaston, director of advancement - Wildfires, Archdiocese of Portland, 2838 E. Burnside, Portland, OR 97214.

edl@catholicsentinel.org