Rebuilding Sonoma County: Catholic community rallies to support aid efforts

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Special coverage

This story is part of a monthly series in 2018 chronicling the rebuilding efforts in Sonoma County’s four fire zones: Coffey Park, Fountaingrove, the greater Mark West area and Sonoma Valley. Read all of the Rebuild North Bay coverage here.

When the Tubbs fire raged toward Fred Wiele’s Santa Rosa home in October 2017, he had time to grab three things: a photograph of his late wife, Patricia, his medication and a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary that Wiele brought back from a pilgrimage to Medjugorje, Bosnia, where many fellow Catholics believe she appeared to six children in 1981.

With just 15 minutes to evacuate for Wiele, the three most important parts of his life jumped to the forefront: family, health and faith.

In the end, the fire spared his house. Not so the homes of about 90 members of his St. Rose Catholic Church community and many of his neighbors.

“I learned a real lesson,” said Wiele, 80. “Even though my house wasn’t burned, I learned that it makes you step back and think about what’s important in life, so that’s what got me interested in trying to reach out and help other people.”

It is for them and because of them that as a member of St. Rose’s parish council, Wiele has worked in the months since to coordinate relief efforts for the wider Sonoma County Catholic community.

His efforts are part of the outpouring of help from the Order of Malta, which provides emergency humanitarian aid to communities affected by disasters around the world. The organization has donated appliances, furniture and clothing to survivors, while also offering resources for emotional and physical healing.

As a result, St. Rose Catholic Church, has become a de facto headquarters for Catholic relief work in Santa Rosa.

On Sunday, the church hosted a healing bilingual Mass of Thanksgiving, in partnership with the Order of Malta — the fourth such Mass Wiele helped coordinate since the October 2017 fires.

Among those in the crowd of about 300 at St. Rose on Sunday was Len Marabella, the executive director of Catholic Charities of Santa Rosa. The Fountaingrove home he shared with his wife was destroyed in the Tubbs fire. They are not rebuilding, opting instead to purchase a home in Oakmont. With his job, and Catholic Charities’ expanded reach post-fires, rebuilding seemed too daunting a project for the couple. Their scraped Fountaingrove lot is up for sale.

“I’m very thankful for where we are,” he said. “It was a Mass of Thanksgiving, and my wife and I are very thankful everything has worked out for us.”

Like so many within the church, the fires drew Marabella deeper into his faith. “Sometimes you just meditate and realize that God is with you wherever you are,” he said.

Following the Mass last Sunday, about 150 people joined together in the St. Rose Parish Hall for lunch, where organizations had set up tables to provide ongoing relief information.

Many of those efforts, including the Order of Malta and Catholic Charities of Santa Rosa, are now gearing up to support fellow relief workers responding to Butte County’s devastating Camp fire.

“The timing of (the Mass) is either ironic or divine providence, and I like to think it’s the latter,” said Kathleen Bruno, communications coordinator for the Order of Malta’s Western Association. “We are all heartbroken for the Paradise community, but take strength from the Sonoma County fire victims who are evidence of community support and activation and God’s healing and mercy.”

The smoky haze last week cast the Mass of Thanksgiving in a different light for many in attendance — the unprecedented death and devastation to the north a topic of conversation and cause for sorrow.

Len Marabella recalled that he was at a fundraiser when he got a call from his son, who lives in Butte County. He had phoned to tell his father that fierce winds and flames were forcing him to flee his home in Magalia. A week later, the family still didn’t know what had happened to the home.

“He said, ‘I know I won’t be homeless,’ ” Marabella said of his son’s confidence in the generosity of others. “I know the feeling. We also knew we wouldn’t be homeless, but it took a little while to figure out the next step.

“That’s why I work at Catholic Charities. The message of the Gospel is to help those who need help. That is the most important thing: to help your neighbor. That’s what I’m doing, and I’ll be continuing to do that.”

Special coverage

This story is part of a monthly series in 2018 chronicling the rebuilding efforts in Sonoma County’s four fire zones: Coffey Park, Fountaingrove, the greater Mark West area and Sonoma Valley. Read all of the Rebuild North Bay coverage here.

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