Cyclone Winston made headlines worldwide when it devastated the Pacific island nation of Fiji on Feb. 20.
It also drew the fervent attention and prayers of Msgr. Edward Lofton, pastor of St. Theresa the Little Flower Church in Summerville, because Catholic communities in Fiji have a direct connection with the Diocese of Charleston.
Msgr. Lofton, director of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith for the diocese, has been involved in raising funds for building and repairing churches in Fiji’s northern islands for more than 10 years. He and other S.C. missionaries have also helped build two nurseries, housing for Catholic school teachers and other needs.
In late January, he traveled to Fiji to negotiate with builders about a new church for a small remote village.
He returned on Feb. 2, and has spent the past few weeks trying to find information about the fate of the people he and others have served over the past decade.
Winston packed winds of up to 160 miles per hour, with gusts over 200, the strongest ever recorded in the Southern Hemisphere. At least 42 people were killed and damage to homes, crops, schools and infrastructure was estimated at $486 million. According to figures released by the Red Cross, the storm affected at least 347,000 people, 40 percent of the national population.
Because phone lines and cell phone towers were destroyed, communication has been spotty, and news from some of the more remote islands is almost nonexistent.
It took days to hear about the fate of two of the society’s main projects.
In 2013, the 150-year-old church at Wairiki on the island of Taveuni was renovated and received a new roof. A new worship space was also built in the village of Naselesele on the northern end of Taveuni.
In 2015, Msgr. Lofton said he was asked to help repair an older church in Nawi. Inspections revealed the building couldn’t be repaired for safety reasons and needed to be demolished. He made the trip to Fiji in January to order construction materials and negotiate with builders about laying the foundations for the new church.
Msgr. Lofton finally heard from friends in Taveuni that while destruction in the area was extensive, both the 150-year-old church in Wairiki and the new one in Naselesele had survived.
As of March 4, he still hadn’t heard anything about the situation in Nawi, which sits on the ocean and faced an estimated storm surge of 36 feet of water.
“We don’t know what happened to them or if that village even exists anymore,” he said.
He also received an email from Columban Fathers John McEvoy and Donal McIlraith, who were near the center of Winston when it passed over the islands. They wrote that “the storm had no mercy on us whatsoever” and described widespread destruction of Catholic schools and churches in other parts of the nation.
Msgr. Lofton hopes to talk with the parish priest in Wairiki and the archbishop in Suva to see what they need, and to ask for a special collection to help the people in Fiji in the near future.
Photos provided by the Missionary Society of St. Columban