Crucifix buried in Joplin tornado returns home

Saturday, July 19, 2014 | 8:24 p.m. CDT

JOPLIN — The original crucifix at St. Mary's Catholic Church has come home.

It had hung behind the altar since 1968, until the 2011 tornado destroyed the church and nearly everything in it, along with the nearby rectory, school, parish center and more.

The tornado hurled the crucifix about half the length of the church. A few days later, volunteer parishioners sifting through the rubble found it beneath a mountain of debris.

Last month, after being repaired, the crucifix was placed on top of a new wooden stand and returned to its place inside St. Mary's, albeit the temporary church at 1230 E. Seventh St. A final move is planned when construction of the new St. Mary's Catholic Church and Elementary School is complete.

The Rev. Justin Monaghan, pastor of St. Mary's, said he will never forget how he felt upon being reunited with the crucifix.

"Emotions ran high when I saw it," he told the Joplin Globe. "It is just something that connected us to the past ... a great memory and a great treasure."

It would prove the latest of several moving moments for parishioners involving the crucifix.

A longtime parishioner and cabinet maker, Wilfred Yust, was asked by the church to build the ash cross prior to the basswood corpus for it was shipped from Italy.

"My dad worked on that cross on nights and weekends," said Anna Patton, daughter of Yust, who died in 2009 at the age of 96. "The only thing that ever bothered him was when he nailed the corpus to the cross."

A few days after the 2011 disaster, parishioners Ivan Eck and Louie Ochsenbein were in the process of sifting through the rubble when they spotted the crucifix.

"When I first saw it, it was amazing," Ochsenbein said. "I could not believe it was not demolished, especially after being buried under a wall."

Eck agreed, adding that the cross and crucifix, which stands more than six feet tall, had to be thrown 50 to 75 feet in the air before landing in the area of the church where the congregation sat.

"Before that cross went down, it took a lot of beating," he said, noting that small bits of debris became embedded in the wooden cross and the corpus from the tornadic winds. The right arm and wrist were broken, but otherwise it was intact.

Eck said looking for the crucifix was like trying to find a person. He spied it beneath a steel beam that had come down and had to crawl around and remove a lot of rocks to get close.

Eck's wife, Susan, used the term "God-incidence" — a coincidence guided by the hand of God — to describe the recovery.

Although her husband would normally never have a floor jack with him, on that day he had put one into the back of his pickup. And that was the only device that could have lifted that beam in order to free the crucifix.

Ochsenbein and Eck's son, who is also named Ivan, assisted in carrying the crucifix outside. Bob Boulware, a carpenter from Oswego, Kan., offered to make the repairs. Inside the cross, Yust had left reminders of the time, including a prayer book and a church bulletin from 1968.

Boulware told Eck that the cross was an inspiration to his family and that he considered it a privilege to make the repairs.

"When he worked on the cross, he would never turn the radio on because it was such an amazing feeling and he could not have all the noise," Eck said.

Boulware said he is not accustomed to seeing a crucifix in the Christian church he attends, but he was inspired by it as he made repairs.

"It was a visual representation that I am not used to having around. I was very much affected by the great representation of what Christ did for us on the cross," Boulware added.

Eck added: "It was just great seeing it at Mass. There are so many people who thought it was gone."

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