By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger
On a Saturday morning, not long after the Aug. 10 derecho storm that brutalized Iowa, Jim Ennis of Catholic Rural Life received a phone call from Kent Ferris of the Diocese of Davenport. “Jim, this is devastating,” said Ferris, the diocese’s director of Social Action and Catholic Charities.
“I knew it was devastating,” Ennis said, recalling the conversation. The derecho disregarded diocesan boundaries. Catholic Rural Life (CRL), a national nonprofit organization dedicated to the vitality of the American countryside, had the connections to reach out to the broader community. “Let’s arrange a novena,” Ennis said.
The Virtual Novena for Iowa, a nine-day prayer service in honor of St. Isidore the farmer, will remember the victims of the storm and offer prayers for the rebuilding of the communities and farms impacted by it. Each day’s 15- to 20-minute prayer service will appear on Facebook Live. The landing page for the Virtual Novena for Iowa is https://catholicrurallife.org/novenaforiowa/ A bishop will lead each day’s prayer service, which begins at 10 a.m. except on Sept. 27, when the service will begin at 11 a.m. All are welcome to participate in real time or later on at their convenience.
Each bishop leading a diocese in Iowa will participate — Archbishop Michael Jackels, Archdiocese of Dubuque; Bishop Thomas Zinkula, Diocese of Davenport; Bishop R. Walker Nickless, Diocese of Sioux City; and Bishop William Joensen, Diocese of Des Moines. “All four were receptive to doing this and all four were most supportive of the rural as well as the metro communities of their dioceses affected by the storm,” Ferris said.
In addition, two bishops serving on the CRL Board of Directors will lead one or more days of the novena — Bishop Robert Gruss, Diocese of Saginaw, Michigan (vice president); and Bishop Brendan Cahill, Diocese of Victoria, Texas (president). Bishop Gruss has close ties to Iowa, having been ordained a priest of the Diocese of Davenport in 1994. When Ennis approached him about the novena, Bishop Gruss said, “Jim, that’s a great idea. Let’s do it.”
CRL organizes a novena to St. Isidore leading up to his feast day (May 15) and for other events, such as Rogation days (festival days devoted to special prayers for crops). The novena this past May was a virtual event that drew 11,000 participants, Ennis said. The Iowa novena represents a special occasion, taking time to show support for all who suffered through that storm. “They need prayer.”
Iowa’s encounter with the derecho shocked many people. The widespread storm with straight-line winds in excess of 100 mph in some places damaged 14 million acres of cropland (50 percent of all of Iowa’s cropland) and destroyed farm buildings, silos and rural communities. Some people lost power for days or weeks. The city of Cedar Rapids sustained substantial damage. Iowans, especially in rural communities, had already been hard hit by trade wars, the pandemic and drought.
The CRL website announcement about the Iowa novena acknowledges that suffering in a message of solidarity. “One of the themes St. Paul repeats in his letters in Holy Scripture is the truth that as Christians, we are the body of Christ, and like our physical body, ‘If one member suffers, all suffer together….’”
Ennis describes the novena prayers in honor of St. Isidore, patron of rural people, as ancient and beautiful (also available and downloadable on CRL’s website). St. Isidore, a12th century farmer, was prayerful and particularly devoted to the Mass and the Eucharist. He and his wife, Maria, practiced charity and willingly helped neighbors in distress and the poor in the city slums.