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Joplin, Mo. and church devastated by 2011 tornado celebrate Christmas Eve of hope

  • The Rev. Justin Monaghan stands in front of the makeshift home of Saint Mary's Roman Catholic Church, where his parish is celebrating its second Christmas since a deadly tornado ripped through the city two years ago. (FOX NEWS)

  • The cross marking the site of the old Saint Mary's Church (FOX NEWS)

  • The cross marking the site of the old Saint Mary's church (FOX NEWS)

  • The new Saint Mary's, under construction (FOX NEWS)

"Why was I saved?"

It's a question the Rev. Justin Monaghan asks often of himself - and of God.

On Tuesday night, as he celebrates Christmas Eve Mass in what once was a hardware store, and that now serves as the makeshift home of Saint Mary's Roman Catholic Church, it's a question he'll silently share with hundreds of parishioners and everyone living in Joplin, Mo., for whom Sunday, May 22, 2011, will forever be a day of sadness - and hope.

It's the second Christmas since a monstrous and deadly EF5 tornado ripped a mile-wide, six-mile long gash through the residential heart of the city - at 5:41 p.m. - leaving more than 160 dead in its wake.

"I was in the rectory, alone, watching TV," the 72-year-old Monaghan recalls, telling his story with an endearing Irish brogue. "Initially, it didn't look like it was coming this way ... but then it changed direction. It sounded like an airplane or a freight train. Normally I would have gone into the rectory basement, but there was no time - so I went into the bathroom and got into the bathtub."

The tub?

"It was this old, metal tub, and I'd heard if you could do nothing else, do that."

Within moments, hell was upon him.

"It took 30 seconds, maybe less... everything shook, everything was coming down around me," he recalled. "Then, it just stopped.

"I waited for awhile. Nothing had hit me - except for the shower curtain." he said, managing a smile. "Finally, I stood up and opened the bathroom door a crack. All I saw was the sky and the rain - no noise, just the pouring rain - and the rubble around me.

"There was no way I could climb out - I was trapped. So I said, 'God, let me accept what's happening.' I was amazed at how relaxed I was when I said that."

Eventually, a doctor and his wife - both parishioners - who had an office nearby drove over to see if Monaghan was all right.

"I yelled to them, and held up a piece of the bed to let them know I was alive," he said. "They saw two young men walking over from the Sonic restaurant nearby and asked them to help get me out. Those young men pulled me out.

"I was in shorts and a t-shirt. I told them I needed my trousers, and my keys ... but the doctor said, 'You don't need any keys - you don't have anything left to open or close.'

"Then I looked around. Saint Mary's was gone - except for the Cross."

The giant, rust-colored cast-iron cross that had stood at the entrance of Saint Mary's, as all around it was disintegrating in the face of near-250 mph winds, rose tall as a beacon of hope for a city now drenched in despair.

"People went to work right away," said Dan O'Connell, whose home suffered major damage from the storm. "The lady who lived next door to me was killed."

O'Connell and fellow parishioner Jim Hardy, a CPA whose nearby office was leveled, are at the heart of rebuilding Saint Mary's. They've led a $3.7 million fundraising campaign that - combined with insurance money and funds from the sale of the old site - is quickly building a new elementary school in time for next school year, and a new church in time for Father Monaghan to celebrate next Christmas Eve Mass, in a reborn Saint Mary's.

"I was eligible to retire before the storm hit," Monaghan said. "But God saved me and kept me alive. I'm not gonna quit now. He gave me a reason to stay on."

And Tuesday night, he'll gather with his parishioners in the old hardware store to retell the journey of the church's namesake and her husband, Joseph, and to celebrate the story of the miraculous birth of a son. And then he'll remind everyone of the message of Saint Mary's.

"How important we all are to one another," he said. 'It's why we survive, why Joplin survives - in the face of adversity, we can find strength in one another."

George Kindel is managing editor of FoxNews.com, and is on a journey around America in search of stories that celebrate the Christmas spirit and New Year's hope. If you have a story to suggest, write him at: georgekindel52@gmail.com.