Amid devastating wildfires, Tennessee bishop calls for aid and prayers

Motorists stop to view wildfires Nov. 29 along the Smoky Mountains National Park near Gatlinburg, Tenn. (CNS photo/courtesy National Park Services handout via Reuters)

Catholic parishioners in the Diocese of Knoxville are among those who have lost homes and businesses in the wildfires that ravaged tourist areas in the Great Smoky Mountains region, said Bishop Richard F. Stika of Knoxville.

Midday Nov. 30, the diocese was still awaiting word on the condition of St. Mary's Catholic Church in Gatlinburg, he said in a statement posted on the diocesan website. Earlier, the diocese reported that the pastor, Father Antony Punnackal, had to evacuate but was safe.

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At least four people were killed and AP reported that an evacuation order was still in effect as firefighters monitored "a few remaining hotspots." AP also said more than 150 buildings were destroyed.

"The Catholic community of east Tennessee continues to pray for those who have been affected by the terrible wildfires in Gatlinburg and other communities across the region," Bishop Stika said. "We are grateful for all the men and women who bravely put themselves in harm's way to protect people and property that were in danger."

"I recognize that the good people of east Tennessee come together quickly in times of need. The Diocese of Knoxville shares that commitment," he added.

Bishop Stika asked that all parishes and mission churches in the diocese hold a special collection at Masses the weekend of Dec. 3-4 to benefit victims of the fires in Gatlinburg and across the region. The diocese also set up an assistance fund for fire victims and was accepting donations online at http://tinyurl.com/j6gf2wd.

He reported that Mercy Sister Mary Christine Cremin, executive director of Catholic Charities of East Tennessee, was leading efforts to help many of the diocesan agency's clients in Gatlinburg and Sevier County and anyone else in need of assistance.

The clergy and staff at Sacred Heart Cathedral and Sacred Heart Cathedral School initiated a food drive to benefit fire victims, and supplies were already on their way to Gatlinburg, according to the bishop.

"If conditions permit," Bishop Stika said, he planned to celebrate Sunday Mass on Dec. 4 at St. Mary's in Gatlinburg.

"I ask that your prayers continue for all the victims and their families," he said.

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