VANCOUVER, British Columbia (CNS) -- When Father Francis Galvan left Sacred Heart Church in Delta Nov. 15, he did not expect to find himself at the center of a catastrophic flood and what is being called the storm of the century.
But within hours, the Augustinian priest was at ground zero of rescue efforts and witnessing humanity at its best, joining with Agassiz residents in responding to the needs of stranded travelers.
"There I saw and realized how the human heart in the worst situations comes out its best -- eyes looking only at those in need of help," he told The B.C. Catholic, newspaper of the Vancouver Archdiocese, by email.
Father Galvan arrived in Harrison Hot Springs only to find the study week canceled due to torrential rains, so he headed over to St. Anthony of Padua Church in Agassiz to check in with pastor Father Dennis Flores. There, the two priests saw rescue helicopters flying overhead and decided to head to the town's community center.
They found themselves in the middle of a massive rescue and relief effort.
"Strong winds were blowing along with heavy rains, and I watched rescue helicopters landing, one after another," Father Galvan said. Evacuees who had been stranded by highway mudslides emerged from the helicopters.
"I saw exhausted, hungry and tired people, including their children and dogs," Father Galvan said. As they were cared for by first responders and volunteers, community center volunteers were busily organizing clothing, food and water being brought in by Agassiz residents.
The two priests returned to the rectory to gather more volunteers, then stopped at the parish thrift store to collect blankets and additional clothing. Using Father Flores' truck, they ended up taking three loads of donations to the community center.
"Thank God for the thrift store, because we have so much we can help people with," said Linda VanScheyndel, a thrift store worker and head of the St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Women's League. "It's just amazing how the people in Agassiz have come forward with food, clothing, blankets, places to stay, and for such a small town" -- about 6,700 people.
By mid-afternoon, St. Anthony's parishioners were taking evacuees into their homes.
Allen and Jammeelyn Albert and their two children had been on their way to Mexico for a weeklong vacation when they were trapped by the storm. After being stranded on the highway, they were airlifted along with other evacuees to the Agassiz community center.
A parish host family took them in, and Father Flores accompanied the host father to the thrift store to pick up suitable winter attire for the family, who had packed only light clothing for their tropical getaway.
When the hosts realized they would need a queen-sized bed, parishioners again stepped up, said Father Flores.
"One of our volunteers said they had one in their house, and they went to Harrison and got the whole bed -- the frame, the mattress -- and he helped me with my truck to deliver it to the host family."
When the community learned one of the Alberts' children would be turning 6, birthday gifts came pouring in for the family. "The host family told me it was just amazing that people who don't know this girl would celebrate her birthday. All the gifts just came."
St. Anthony Church has been unaffected by the flooding, and Father Flores said he was grateful for the generosity he's seen within the community as it supported those affected by the flooding and landslides.
The record flooding and devastation affected other churches in the Archdiocese of Vancouver.
In Abbotsford, migrant workers who were forced to flee floodwaters were being supported by St. Ann's Parish, which has an active pastoral care ministry for Hispanic migrants and a special focus on temporary seasonal farm workers. An estimated 200 seasonal farm workers had to relocate to temporary shelters in the Abbotsford and Chilliwack areas.
Floodwaters forced several St. Ann's parishioners to evacuate their dairy farms. The parish center was available as an emergency shelter if needed.
In Hope, where some 1,200 motorists and truckers were stranded because of washed-out and flooded highways, Our Lady of Good Hope parishioners were doing what they could to help. Michelle LaBossiere said individual members of the parish were supporting relief efforts by donating food and services to stranded travelers.
At the church itself, Oblate Father Gordon Cook said the parish made its parking lot and washroom facilities available for stranded travelers. He was not able to open the parish hall due to lack of staffing and because the church had been without power for 24 hours.
"The hall, the rectory, the church, everything was just freezing cold in here," Father Cook said. "There was no way I could have allowed anyone in here."
"I've been here eight-and-a-half years, and I've never seen a situation like we've got now," Father Cook said. "Right now Hope is like an island. We're cut off from everything. Nothing can come in, and nothing can go out. It's just cut off completely."