By Cathy Harasta
The Texas Catholic
WEST, Texas—On the night of April 17, the meaning of a Catholic ministry hit home with penetrating clarity for Deacon Ronnie Sykora and his wife, Sandra.
A thunderous blast sent the St. Mary’s Catholic Church of the Assumption parishioners to check on Ronnie’s parents, who lived near the site of the deadly fire and explosion at the West Fertilizer Co. plant.
After finding that Ronnie’s parents were unharmed, the Sykoras went directly to St. Mary’s, where Ronnie had been ordained to the diaconate just four days earlier.
As soon as Sandra Sykora saw the faces of a particular pair of dear friends, she said that she knew what they were thinking about their son, a member of the West Volunteer Fire Department.
“They knew what probably had happened to him, but there was still a ray of hope,” Sandra said. “We said, ‘How can we help?’ It hit me that this is our role; this is what it means to be a deacon. Our calling was for real. This is why we were called.”
As the town of about 2,800 began to assess and mourn its losses, Father Ed Karasek, the pastor of St. Mary’s, credited the parish community for demonstrating great faith and follow-through abilities. As staff members and volunteers blended bereavement and tenacity, the parish became the focus of resilience and recovery.
The deafening blast set in motion a faith response that included hands-on help for the injured; feeding and sheltering those whose homes were destroyed, and offering non-stop spiritual comfort and prayers, said Father Boniface Onjefu, associate pastor of St. Mary’s.
He said that he ran from the rectory out into the street when he heard the explosion, hurried to his car, and drove to the town’s nursing home, where frightened residents were being evacuated.
“I was still wearing my Roman collar from having celebrated the evening Mass,” he said on May 1 during a reflective interval about the two weeks since the tragedy. “I thought it was an earthquake. At the nursing home, I saw fear written all over people’s faces. They saw the Roman collar and asked me to pray with them. It was the kind of catastrophe people had never seen. We lifted up the people in the nursing home who could not move or walk, because we feared a second explosion.”
But that was just the beginning of the parish’s service to the town, which is located about 70 miles south of Dallas, and to officials and agencies that came to help.
As the death toll from the fire and explosion reached 15, parishioners absorbed heartbreak after heartbreak as they officially learned the names of family members, parishioners and neighbors who died, most of whom were first-responders who prized public safety and civic responsibility.
Nine who died were Catholics and seven of those were St. Mary’s Catholic Church of the Assumption parishioners.
Of the 12 who died in the line of duty, five were active members of the West Volunteer Fire Department and two were honorary members.
The spirit of ecumenism graced the community, as St. Mary’s hosted vigils that reached across the faiths.
Within the nine days from April 23 through May 1, St. Mary’s Catholic Church of the Assumption held services for eight who died as a result of the fire and explosion.
Father Onjefu said that Father Anthony Odiong, a priest much beloved in West who had served at St. Mary’s, saw news of the explosion on Facebook and dropped everything in Rome, Italy, where he was studying, to head for the central Texas town.
When he arrived, he joined Father Karasek and Father Onjefu in offering spiritual support to parishioners, the students and staff at St. Mary’s Catholic School and the town.
Father Onjefu prayed the rosary with the St. Mary’s students and spent entire school days offering spiritual comfort. He said that he felt that prayer and his presence specifically helped several children who gave accounts of recurring nightmares.
And when the parish held services for its fallen loved ones, the St. Mary’s students created tributes in the form of artistic displays for the church’s vestibule.
“Everybody was pitching in,” Deacon Sykora said. “It was three-layered support from immediate families, the church family and the community.”
Father Karasek said that his fellow priests, the parish staff and volunteers contributed in countless ways to relief efforts. He praised the service of the Knights of Columbus and members of the parish’s Adoration, Community, Theology and Service ministry (A.C.T.S.).
The groups donated building space for the relief effort and served thousands of meals to those who lost their homes.
But his parish community did not seem to surprise Father Karasek.
“When it comes to ministering, they have the resources and know how to do it,” he said. “And as we’re the biggest church, the other [denominations’] ministers in town were just so grateful that they could use our church.
“This church belongs to everybody, not just to us.”
The parish turned over its parking lot for a command post for federal and state investigative and relief agencies, parish council president Rick Vrbas said. With nowhere for Sunday Mass-goers to park, the church arranged to use buses from Waco to shuttle worshippers from the grounds of Westfest, the town’s annual Labor Day Weekend celebration of West’s Czech settlers and heritage.
The 120-year-old parish’s 90-pew church drew overflow crowds for the Celebration of Life Masses, most of which were followed by funeral processions that included dozens of official vehicles.
Fire trucks draped with black bunting and various emergency-response SUVs formed a somber but vivid lineup outside of St. Mary’s on April 26, the day of Joey Pustejovsky’s Mass of Christian Burial.
It began as an overcast day when a cloudburst could come at any moment, but the talk inside Gerik’s Bakery was not about the weather.
“Father Ed’s been very busy, and he stays busy,” said Charles Kubacak, a retiree and native of West who identified himself as a morning regular at the bakery where shelves held dozens of championship trophies that testified to Gerik’s success at Westfest kolache bakeoffs.
“This is a predominantly Catholic town. And there’s been a lot of devastation.”
He and his companions, Royce Zatopek and Al Ctvrtlik, described the explosion as the type of tragedy that could bring a town to its knees. West was a place that cherished prayer, they said.
But they had to go. Zatopek said that it was time to change into his suit for Joey’s funeral, time for them to put on their Sunday best, though it was a Friday in a week they would wear their Sunday best many times.
Joseph F. “Joey” Pustejovsky, Jr., was all things West, and Father Karasek’s homily celebrated a life rich in love and service.
Joey, 29, was a lifelong St. Mary’s parishioner and the town of West’s city secretary, the equivalent to a city manager. He died fighting the fire.
His mother, Carolyn, works as the parish secretary.
Among his many service accomplishments and activities, Joey started the parish’s youth ministry and was a member of the Knights of Columbus Council 2305 and the Msgr. George 4th Degree Assembly 2391.
Joey recently married in the church that on this day held his flag-draped coffin and a vast constellation of people whose lives he touched.
As the pews filled, people gave each other big hugs. His fellow firefighters honored him, as did the Knights, the Men’s A.C.T.S. Choir and many more of Joey’s admirers.
Father Karasek’s homily gave profound thanks to Joey for his life and courage. The tribute also saluted Joey as one who energetically loved life and now loves heaven.
“They’re probably drinking some cold Pivos,” Father Karasek said, using the Czech word for beer. “They’re probably eating some kolaches.”
The pastor, who has been at St. Mary’s for more than 24 years, expressed the town’s appreciation for Joey as one who did not leave his hometown. And not only did Joey serve his community, but he did virtually everything, including taking over the role of Santa Claus when the previous Santa retired.
“Joey was the youngest and the skinniest Santa you ever saw,” Father Karasek said with a smile.
Some mirth made its way through the church, and then some laughter rippled through the pews.
Father Karasek comforted the congregation with words about Jesus’ love—for Joey, for all who lost their lives in the fire and explosion, and for all who mourned them and gathered at St. Mary’s for Masses and for reassurance.
“Joey will always be with us in the risen Lord,” Father Karasek said. “We are a people of hope, a people of faith.”