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New Zealand death toll climbs to 147

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Joanne Fagan-Oslawskyj weeps as she attends a church service at St. Barnabas with her son eight-year-old Jamie in Christchurch, New Zealand, Sunday, Feb. 27, 2011.

Parishioners came together Sunday in parks and on the lawns of churches broken in New Zealand’s earthquake to pray for the dead and missing. They sought togetherness and an answer to the question on everyone’s mind: Why?

“The randomness of the events throws up the ‘why’ question more starkly,” the Rev. Mark Chamberlain told about 100 people who came to hear his sermon outside St. Barnabas Anglican church, where jagged cracks line the walls, stained glass windows are shattered and the tower is sinking.

“Why did one person survive and one person die? Why did the people in the cathedral — of all places — perish?”

Up to 22 people may be buried in rubble at Christchurch Cathedral, most of them believed to be tourists climbing the bell tower for its panoramic views of the southern New Zealand city of Christchurch when it was struck by last Tuesday’s 6.3-magnitude quake.

The official death toll rose Sunday to 147 as search teams uncovered more bodies in the debris and that number was expected to rise, police Superintendent Dave Cliff said. Prime Minister John Key has said the quake, which decimated the city’s downtown, may be the country’s “single-most tragic” disaster.

The churches that dot the city felt some of the worst of the temblor’s wrath. Spires toppled, stained glass windows exploded, walls cracked and masonry fell.

Outside St. Barnabas, the faithful — and those whose faith has been tested by the disaster — sat in chairs on the lawn with heads bowed, many wiping away tears, as leaders of the 86-year-old church tried to comfort them.

“This is not called Christchurch for nothing,” the Rev. Philip Robinson said, drawing smiles from a few. “We will rise again.”

Many parishioners said they relished the normalcy of attending Sunday Mass amid the heartbreak of the past week, even if it wasn’t quite normal: where typically there are smiles, there were tears, and the sermon was occasionally punctuated by the wails of passing police cars and the roar of a military chopper overhead.

“It helps get back to normal, even if it’s outside in the sunshine,” said Mary Mills, 67. “But aren’t we lucky to be free? To be here?”

Nearby, Joe Oslawskyj, 41, sat next to his wife and four children, tears in his eyes. The family only moved to New Zealand from Manchester, England, three weeks ago, and have been struggling to cope since the quake.

“It just means something to be with all the people,” his 40-year-old wife Joanne Fagan-Oslawskyj said, weeping. “We’re all the same, and we’re all together.”

Staff members handed out tambourines and rattles to children, and the church band played a series of upbeat songs. Fagan-Oslawskyj wiped the tears from her eyes and smiled, picking up her 3-year-old daughter Sarah and bouncing her in time to the music, as the little girl shook her rattle and grinned.

Outdoor services also were held at other churches and at a library, where attendees arrived on bicycle or on foot and sat in folding chairs. The Eucharist was performed at St. Albans Park with pita bread and a bottle of Australian port because wafers and communion wine were lost in the quake.

Members of New Zealand’s indigenous Maori community held a traditional ceremony at the ruined cathedral to bless spirits of the dead believed buried under the rubble there.

Other residents spent their Sunday morning in more secular surroundings, such as the botanical gardens, where oak trees insulate the pathways from the noise of the city’s rescue and recovery operations.

The Robb family, brothers Neville and Graeme and their wives Gael and Michelle, met in the gardens, as they do every Sunday, to walk their dogs.

“You feel guilty doing something so normal when there is so much suffering,” Michelle Robb said. “But the dogs need walking.”

Some 56 per cent of New Zealanders have a Christian religious affiliation and nearly 35 per cent profess no religion, while religions such as Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism are growing as immigrants arrive.

In other parts of the city, residents did what they could to help others: one family walked the dusty streets, handing out cupcakes to a construction crew repairing the fractured roads. A group of young men drove through the city, hopping out of their car at stop lights to hand foil-wrapped plates of food to nearby drivers.

After the service at St. Barnabas, people gathered by a table to have coffee, scones and banana bread, and to comfort those in pain.

Megan Blakie, 45, stood in the crowd, eyes brimming with tears.

“I just am struggling with where’s God in all of this?” she said. “It’s not shattered my faith, but it’s hard to keep going.”

But she came to church anyway, she said, because she needed reassurance that if her faith was faltering, others would carry the burden.

“Even if I can’t pray at the moment,” she said, “Others can.”


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