With an Eye on Paradise

By Marian Friedrichs

Early in the morning of Nov. 8, 2018, a wildfire started in the hills surrounding Paradise, California. With high winds and peak dryness, area conditions were perfect to create a firestorm of nightmarish proportions. 

Flames raced through the region with such speed that evacuation notices failed to reach many Paradise residents. Approximately one in four were elderly, and one in five were disabled. The Camp Fire, as it came to be called, would rage for 17 days before it was finally extinguished. It claimed at least 85 lives and devoured nearly 19,000 structures.

Meanwhile, 580 miles away in Boise, Idaho, Gina Kuckler learned about the conflagration. Although the 46-year-old mother of two did not know anyone affected by the blaze, the news hit her hard. “For three days I was in the deepest, darkest, blackest depression,” she recalls. 

Unable to sleep, Gina could do nothing but watch the news, her mind racing helplessly. “God, I’m just one person,” she prayed. “What can I do?”

In time, continued prayer and active inquiry brought the answer to Gina’s question. What could she do? She could reach out to the Catholics of Paradise and put religious resources into their hands when they needed them most. Gina’s depression gave way to “the most beautiful sense of joy and wonder,” and she set to work.

The St. Thomas More Parish church in Paradise survived the fire, as did the building that had once housed the parish school. The rectory and the priest’s car were burned, and most of the parishioners lost their homes. Many sought refuge in nearby Chico, where Our Divine Savior Catholic Church provided them with a spiritual home. Every Sunday, a Mass was celebrated especially for the parishioners of St. Thomas More. Some, who were not living in Chico, drove long distances to attend this Mass. In the aftermath of the blow to their town, these worshipers fought to remain a community.

In Idaho, Gina was busy. By the end of November, she and some friends had gathered a spiritual care package for the displaced parishioners: 420 homemade Rosaries and an assortment of donated prayer cards. Gina mailed the Rosaries and prayer cards to the parish office at its temporary location, glad to have found a way to let the St. Thomas More parishioners know that “people of other communities cared.” But Gina and her friends had no intention of stopping there.

Later in the winter, a member of Gina’s Divine Mercy prayer group suggested that the St. Vincent de Paul thrift stores in Idaho’s Treasure Valley serve as drop-off points for donations. Gina’s ministry, which had begun to call itself Friends of St. Thomas More, began collecting Bibles at these thrift stores. At the end of March, she drove to Chico, California, and presented St. Thomas More parishioners with Bibles and other spiritual books, religious art, handmade prayer shawls, and spiritual bouquets. 

“People were so appreciative and willing to receive,” she recalls. “They humbled me so much.”

Gina felt nervous about how the people might react to the gift of second-hand items. She needn’t have worried. When Gina gave a little girl the children’s Bible that had once belonged to her own son and daughter, the girl’s father expressed nothing but deep gratitude. Gina watched people’s faces light up when they were presented with pictures of Jesus. She saw recipients hug copies of spiritual books that had once been on their own vanished bookshelves. 

On June 30, St. Thomas More Parish celebrated Mass again in its own church for the first time since the fire. The reopening was a joyous milestone, but the parish and the town still have a long road ahead. Rebuilding Paradise will be a massive task. The members of St. Thomas More are still scattered, and many will not return to Paradise for a long time, if at all.   

 The Friends of St. Thomas More remain determined to find ways to help them. The ministry is raising funds to buy the parish a subscription to formed.org. As Gina and her friends labor to help nurture the faith of the people of St. Thomas More, her own faith continues to grow. 

For those who would like to support St. Thomas More Parish, Gina recommends having Masses offered, especially on Nov. 8, the 
anniversary of the fire. Gina requests to be notified of these Masses at friendsofSTMParish@gmail.com so that she can tell the parishioners about them. “Prayer is actually the one and only thing they’ve ever asked for,” she says.  



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