December 1, 2022 | Local News
Fr. Stephen Van Lal Than

Susan Montalvo-Gesser, director of Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Owensboro, Ky., hugs Alfredo “Fredy” Gonzalez, a parishioner of St. Joseph Parish in Mayfield, after the Dec. 10, 2021 tornadoes devastated western Kentucky. COURTESY OF SUSAN MONTALVO-GESSER

Rising to the challenge: Catholic Charities of western Ky. thrives while accompanying survivors


Four years ago this January, Susan Montalvo-Gesser became the director of Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Owensboro.

Her plan had been to grow the agency by increasing assistance to victims of violence, improving humanitarian relief, helping with family-sponsored visas, and expanding diocesan counseling resources, among other dreams.

She had one “normal” year, so to speak. Then in 2020 the COVID-19 pandemic started – “and things changed,” she told The Western Kentucky Catholic in a recent interview.

Shortly after that, the Catholic Charities agency began assisting Afghans being resettled in the area, “and more things changed,” she said.

“Then we had the tornadoes,” said Montalvo-Gesser of the Dec. 10, 2021 storms that devastated western Kentucky.

By this point, Catholic Charities had become accustomed to pivoting whenever something shifted.

But these storms, which were considered the worst tornado outbreak in Kentucky history, intensified the workload of the agency’s two full-time employees and one part-time employee, throwing them into an intense learning curve.

“What had prepared me was that in summer 2019, we went to Laredo, Texas, to assist their local Catholic Charities in accompanying migrants,” said Montalvo-Gesser. “Following their Catholic Charities’ example, we learned how to love by the seat of our pants.”

Khaibar Shafaq, a paralegal and case manager for Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Owensboro, works with client Sheila Rose. One year after the tornadoes devastated western Kentucky on Dec. 10, 2021, Catholic Charities is committed to helping communities recover. COURTESY OF SUSAN MONTALVO-GESSER

She recalled witnessing how the migrants had lost any sense of dignity after being processed by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and that in serving the migrants, “you just had to give and receive love.”

There she learned the lesson that “we’re not going to be able to ‘fix’ things” in some scenarios. Instead, Catholic Charities’ focus should be that “we are accompanying the marginalized on their journey – on their terms,” she said.

This served as their guiding principle in those first days after the tornadoes, and it has remained to this day.

A year later, the staff has multiplied for Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Owensboro. They have case managers helping tornado survivors all over western Kentucky. And the agency has become a trusted, recognized and respected name even by those who are not Catholic.

Khaibar Shafaq, who originally came to Kentucky as part of the Afghan resettlement program in Owensboro, today serves as a paralegal and disaster case manager for Catholic Charities.

“Every day I always learn something new,” said Shafaq. “It’s always a blessing to work with Susan. She’s one of the best people I’ve ever worked with.”

Montalvo-Gesser expressed gratitude for Gabe Tischler, an emergency management specialist for Catholic Charities’ disaster response, who within days after the tornado traveled from Florida to provide a crash-course to the western Kentucky agency.

Tischler has continued a relationship with them, training all Catholic Charities case managers before they begin working with tornado survivor clients.

“Then his area experienced Hurricane Ian,” said Montalvo-Gesser. When she reached out to check on him, Tischler reminded her to “keep your oxygen mask on, keep doing what you’re doing.”

Catholic Charities case manager Trajon Bright (left) with Forrest House, a client of Catholic Charities, who assisted House while his home was being rebuilt after the December 2021 tornadoes. COURTESY OF DCN. BRENT KIMBLER

Montalvo-Gesser said Catholic Charities USA has been affirming and accessible through the entire journey. They have also provided approximately $2.9 million in gifts to Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Owensboro, and approximately $40,600 in grants – both of which are to be used for tornado relief.

Other regional Catholic Charities agencies have shared their own insights from natural disasters, such as the team in southern Missouri, who experienced the Joplin tornado in 2011.

“Hearing their wisdom that when you are hit with a disaster and lean on these partners, you can come back stronger,” said Montalvo-Gesser. “All of the people we’ve met throughout this process… this is my new circle.”

Drawing from their own experiences, the western Kentucky staff stepped in to help with relief efforts when the July 2022 floods devastated their neighbors in eastern Kentucky.

Montalvo-Gesser estimates that it will still take 3-5 years before the region fully rebuilds and recovers from the tornadoes, and said she is grateful to those who have continued supporting these efforts.

“The biggest blessings have been the people,” she said. “The survivors. The case managers. The volunteers who stepped in.”

Originally printed in the December 2022 issue of The Western Kentucky Catholic.

Current Issue

Publisher |  Bishop William F. Medley
Editor |  Elizabeth Wong Barnstead
Contributors |  Riley Greif, Rachel Hall
Layout |  Rachel Hall
Send change of address requests to [email protected]