Traveling down South Main Street on his way to work each morning, beginning around 24th Street, Scott Lone will glance to his right, his eyes seeking out the St. Mary’s cross.

He’s been doing this for years.

“It’s become almost ... an instinctual habit,” said Lone, a longtime parishioner at St. Mary’s Catholic Church. “I remember that next morning (after the tornado) coming to work and seeing the cross for the first time. ... It gave me hope that things (were) going to be OK, that there’s something else at work that is bigger than what any of us can understand.”

Despite the storm’s 200 mph winds that day, the cross stood when everything else around it lay in ruin, including the church, rectory, school and parish center. In the days and weeks that followed, the iron cross became an inspirational symbol for thousands of Joplin residents — making national and even international headlines. On Saturday, more than 60 parishioners and others gathered before the cross at Moffet Avenue and 25th Street to remember those who died in 2011, pray for the storm’s survivors and their families, and unveil plans for the site.

The Most Rev. Edward Rice, bishop of the Diocese of Springfield-Cape Girardeau, led a rosary. During the ceremony, flowers were placed at the foot of the cross in memory of the 161 people who died because of the storm.

In the months following the storm, St. Mary’s parishioner Karen Long originally wanted the cross moved out to the church’s new location on Central City Road.

“But then I realized how many people we received letters from, people who told us about the cross and what it meant to them, how they prayed about it,” Long said.

Her own painting with 161 butterflies was displayed during the ceremony to commemorate the storm’s 10-year anniversary.

“We realized the cross wasn’t about us now but that God had left it standing for a reason and that people were drawn to it. It has become so very important to everyone,” she added.

During the hourlong ceremony, the Rev. Joe Weidenbenner, St. Mary’s pastor, unveiled renderings and provided details concerning the church’s plans to build a permanent, landscaped gathering space around the iron cross.

The cross was moved in early 2019 and stabilized atop a permanent pedestal, he said.

Plans include three interlocking rings, each inscribed with a theological virtue — faith, hope and charity — at the foot of the cross.

“Everybody in Joplin showed a lot of faith and a lot of hope and was filled with charity for one another and for other people who came in to help, which is why we picked those theological themes or virtues, because it reflects on what a lot of people gave,” Weidenbenner said.

Each of the three circles will be surrounded by a 2-foot wall, allowing people to sit and reflect or pray. While the cross will sit inside one circle, individual stone tablets will be center-spaced inside the other two.

One will be dedicated to the Rev. Justin Monahan, the late pastor of St. Mary’s who rode out the storm inside the rectory’s bathtub. The other will list the three chosen virtues with a brief explanation of what each one means.

Work is expected to begin sometime this summer, he said, and they hope to have it finished before winter arrives.

“We wanted this site to be just not for the parish but for the entire community,” Weidenbenner said. “Anybody is welcome here any time — as long as they come to respect the past, the present and the future. (We) want them to share our thoughts and memories of those who have gone in the past, those who we remember daily who died during the tornado, and those who have passed since then who actually, through their charity and perseverance, made where we stand today possible.”

St. Mary’s parishioner Mary Metsker is relieved the cross won’t be going anywhere any time soon. She finds peace in the fact that the cross sits near the site of her destroyed church — the church where she was married in 1982.

“It gives me hope,” she said, staring up at the cross, rosary beads entwined around her fingers. “This is a place where you can still come to reflect and pray.”

Sister Julie Bendt, director of Joplin Area Catholic Schools, said she’s not surprised that so many people in the community have embraced the cross and call it their own.

“Not at all,” she said, “because I think in times of challenge and times of devastation, faith rings true for everyone, whether that’s the Christian faith or any other faith tradition: We lean on God.”

Kevin McClintock is features editor for The Joplin Globe.

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