PERRYVILLE, Mo. — Perhaps it was merely coincidence.
Or perhaps not.
“I’d call it Providence,” said Vincentian Father Robert Brockland, who along with Amy Naeger, her brother Neal Gremaud, St. Louisan Bob Klump and Vincentian Father Walter Reisinger were at the center of this story in the last week of December and the first weekend of January.
None needs to be convinced of heavenly intervention, though the Army Corps of Engineers might need convincing after an unknown force or flawed human prediction kept the Mississippi River on its side of the levee and Bois Brule Bottom farmers dry in the flood straddling 2015 and 2016.
After heavy rains on Christmas weekend, the National Weather Service forecast the Mississippi River to crest at about 50 feet — the height of levee on the Missouri side of the river after being fortified with two feet of rock. A breach in the levee would have spelled disaster for acres of farmland and the few remaining to live in the bottomland since the record flood of 1993, with a crest of 49.74 feet.
The actual crest Jan. 2, was 4 feet lower than predicted. An engineer told Gremaud that the Corps “didn’t understand it; the Mississippi did not act like it should have” with a crest of “only” 45.99 feet.
For the Vincentian priests, the siblings Gremaud and Klump, the reason was simple: the intercession of Our Lady of Perpetual Help.
“I don’t think it’s any coincidence,” Naeger said Jan. 1 while sitting in her mother-in-law’s restaurant — Al’s Place in McBride.
Neal Gremaud got the prayer ball rolling Dec. 27, driving the northern portion of the 26-mile levee with Father Reisinger from nearby Perryville. They prayed and invoked the intercession of Mary, who was represented by a smartphone picture of a plaque that had been in Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church in Belgique and now resides in a shrine at the old church’s cemetery a third of mile away on a Missouri highway. They had wanted to bring the actual plaque, but to their dismay, it had been removed for safekeeping.
Independently, Naeger decided the levee needed to be blessed as well but that a statue of Our Lady of Perpetual Help needed to come along. Why a statue?
“It just came to me,” she told the St. Louis Review, newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Louis.
She enlisted the help of Father Brockland, who served as administrator of St. Joseph Mission in Highland for 16 years and now lives in St. Louis. The priest stopped at Catholic Gifts and Books in Chesterfield Dec. 29 to purchase the statue, which owner Mary Bachinski had ordered a few year ago merely because an Our Lady of Perpetual Help statue is rare.
“It’s always a plaque or a picture,” she said. “I put it in a corner and forgot about it.”
Until Father Brockland called. With statue in hand, he and Klump drove to Perry County, and Naeger met them at the Shrine of the Miraculous Medal, where the statue was blessed.
Then, with Naeger driving, Father Brockland riding shotgun and Klump in the backseat, they spent the next two-and-a-half hours driving along the southern portion of the levee, praying the Divine Mercy Chaplet and the “Memorare.” They stopped every 10th of a mile for Father Brockland to bless the levee with holy water.
“We didn’t talk very much,” Father Brockland said. “We were all praying.”
The drive, at just 6 or 7 mph, was harrowing. Water was lapping up on the side of the levee, where a man was swept away in his truck when the levee broke while he patrolled in the flood of ’93. He survived two hours in flood water, but now Naeger, Father Brockland and Klump drove over the same spot.
“Around the bends, the water was really deep,” said Naeger, who juggled the steering wheel, the 12-inch statue and a rosary — three items in two hands. “I was worried.”
And overcome with emotion.
“When we started processing, it was … really overwhelming, ” she said, choking up three days after the drive.
She chuckled about her next thought.
“This is the Blessed Mother of our Lord in a (Chevrolet) Tahoe,” she said, with a laugh. “She should be traveling in something more elaborate.”
But Naeger then felt a sense of calm.
“After that, I wasn’t afraid anymore, because I knew she had taken care of everything,” she said.
Afterward, they stopped at Al’s Place, where Father Brockland enthroned the statue of Our Lady and recited the “Blessing of a Community Against Floods,” from the Roman Ritual, an official book of prayers and ceremonies used in administering the sacraments. His favorite part of the blessing is the final line: “And may the blessing of Almighty God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, come upon these waters and keep them always under control.”
“The Blessed Mother is the intercessor for her Incarnate Son, Jesus,” Father Brockland said. “She is mother most powerful, and she comes to intercede for us. Jesus cannot refuse His mother.”
The devotion to Our Lady of Perpetual Help dates back at least a century among the Catholic farming community in the Perryville area. After a flood in 1943, the Belgique church got the plaque and processed with it along the levee, praying for the Blessed Mother’s intercession.
With the one notable exception, the bottomland has remained dry since. The plaque was absent when the Flood of ’93 covered farmland and destroyed homes and the old Blessed Nativity Church, which had been closed just the year prior. Gremaud now owns the parish property; he parks farm equipment in a shed where a rectory, a convent and a school stood beside and behind the church.
After closing, the church and its contents were auctioned, but in advance of the ’93 flood, Gremaud learned the history of plaque, and he and others sought its return. They barely had repurchased the plaque — the auctioneer found it for them — before the levee broke. After the flood, the shrine was built, and though the plaque was high and dry this time around, the Gremaud siblings and Vincentian priests were proactive in making sure Our Lady of Perpetual Help was on board to help them.
“The farmers look to Our Lady of Perpetual Help for safety from accidents, for their farm equipment and financial interests,” Father Brockland said. “They are dedicated to Mary.”
For good reason.
“We drove the levee all the way north and all the way south, and no one lost anything,” he said.
– – –
Brinker and Luecking are staff reporters at the St. Louis Review, newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Louis.