Two Southern Oregon towns went up in smoke last week and thousands of people fled wherever they could. Catholic parishes emerged from the smoky glow as places of refuge.

Father Bill Holtzinger of Grants Pass was out when he saw evacuees from Talent and Phoenix camped in the parking lot of a shopping center. “Come stay with us,” said the friendly priest, pastor of St. Anne Parish in Grants Pass. “It will be much safer.”

The parish even put out a social media welcome, offering parking, water and bathrooms. On top of that, parishioners made sack lunches for evacuees.

Sacred Heart Parish in Medford opened its gymnasium to fire refugees. We imagine many other western Oregon parishes are doing kindnesses we have not yet heard about.

The notion of sanctuary at Catholic churches is ancient. Many of us recall Quasimodo in the “Hunchback of Notre Dame” crying “Sanctuary! Sanctuary!” He was invoking protection from unjust pursuit by civil authorities, one of the dangers churches sought to defuse with God’s steadfast love and presence. Of late, immigrants without authorization have received sanctuary in churches.

We are glad churches are still seen as places of protective peace, where a higher law applies. Our lovely buildings are superb tools for us to serve those in real need — and at the same time let them come into contact with our religion.

Buildings and property are needed for refuge, but so are good people. Of that, our Catholic parishes have a blessed abundance. We may falter in spirit amid the pandemic, the election, racial injustice, protests, riots and fires. But the striking and lovely presence of a Catholic parish — a structure and people bound by divine presence — is enough to extinguish despair.