Assumption begins long process of rebuilding after tornado

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The historic Church of the Assumption has started the long walk back from the damage it sustained from the tornadoes that swept across Middle Tennessee on March 3.

The repairs to the church, which was built in 1859 to serve the German-speaking Catholic community in the city, could take several years to complete and will cost an estimated $4 million to $6 million, according to Father Bede Price, pastor of Assumption.

“They just don’t know” the full extent of the damage, said Father Price. 

Construction crews have already been busy removing everything from the church, including the pews, statues and other artwork, the Stations of the Cross, the pipe organ and all the stained-glass windows. All of it will be put in storage until it can be re-installed.

Once everything is removed from the church, crews will begin removing the plaster on the ceiling so they can more closely inspect the roof and assess the full extent of the damage, Father Price said.

When the storm hit, it entered the church first by blowing in sections of the Holy Family stained glass window, located to the right of the altar.

The church “blew up like a balloon,” Father Price said. “The pressure on the windows was tremendous. They were saved because the roof popped off, releasing the pressure.”

When the roof was lifted off the building, a large crack was created along the north wall at the ceiling, and the wall is now leaning outward. The steeple on top of the church is leaning 5 degrees and will have to be removed, repaired and put back in place.

The roof will have to be replaced, but Goodrum Construction Co., the general contractor for the repairs, is still determining how much of the north wall will have to be rebuilt, Father Price said.

In the sacristy, debris came through the 14-inch thick brick wall “like a cannon ball,” causing the wall to collapse, and then hit the bell control box on the wall about 10 feet away, destroying it, Father Price said. “I can’t even imagine the force to go through a 14-inch wall.”

The bricks from the wall have been saved and will be used to rebuild it, he said.

Although the building sustained significant damage, it will be rebuilt, Father Price said.

“Given its historical value and architectural value for the Church in the Diocese of Nashville, the Church in Tennessee, it has to stay,” he said. “It’s a unique church. It survived the Civil War, two world wars. It’s not going anywhere.”

“The people understand this church is the Diocese of Nashville,” Father Price said. Throughout its long history, people have moved from Assumption to help establish other parishes, and “Practically every old Nashville Catholic family has a connection to this church,” he said.

It was the home parish of Cardinal Samuel Stritch, the Archbishop of Chicago and the first American cardinal to serve in the Curia at the Vatican, as well as Archbishop John Floersh, the first Archbishop of Louisville. Both attended the parish school as children, and celebrated Masses at its altar, Father Price noted.

“It’s important,” he said of the parish.

Assumption is a popular church for weddings, which provide an important revenue stream to support the parish that will now be lost. 

“We already had 20 weddings scheduled,” which had to be cancelled and moved to another church, Father Price said. “We usually do 35 a year.”

“You feel sorry” for the couples who’ve had their wedding plans disrupted, Father Price said.

But some aspects of parish life have gone on despite the damage to the church. “Since the storm, we’ve already had six baptisms and one wedding,” all with limited attendance because of restrictions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, Father Price said. “At the wedding there were just four people.”

Since the tornado, the parish has received support from Bishop J. Mark Spalding, the Diocese of Nashville and from friends around the country who have donated money to help pay for the repairs.

“But if it weren’t for the insurance,” Father Price said, “I think we’d be doomed.”

The damage from the tornado was followed by a second blow caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and the cancellation of public Masses.

“We had two Sundays after the storm and before the coronavirus,” to bring the community together, Father Price said. With a small staff and no internet service for more than a month after the tornado, “We were completely cut off,” he said. “It was like going back to the Middle Ages.”

Preparing for the ‘new normal’

But the parish is preparing for when people can return for Mass. They have set up two chapels, one in Father Bernard Hall, next door to the church, and a second one in the second-floor ballroom in the Buddeke House across the street.

The parish added the second chapel in Father Bernard Hall because “the ballroom is hard for people to get to if they have mobility issues,” Father Price said.

Each weekend, there will be two Masses in each of the chapels, one in English and one in Latin.

“Two thirds of the parishioners come here for the Latin Mass,” traveling from throughout the diocese and beyond, Father Price said. “What they’re drawn here for is the celebration of the liturgy and the beauty of the church.”

Once the public celebration of Mass returns and he can see how many people are coming to Assumption, he might have to make adjustments to the schedule, Father Price said. “We’ll have to re-evaluate it in the new normal.”

In the meantime, his parishioners are eager to return.

“Now it’s just hurry up and wait,” he said. “They really want to get back into their church.”

‘Trying to do our part’

The road back from the tornado damage won’t be as hard for St. Vincent de Paul Church because the damage was not as extensive.

There was damage to the roofs of the church, rectory and gymnasium of the former St. Vincent de Paul School, which now houses the St. Mary Child Development Center, explained Carl Hobson, the facilities manager for the parish.

The roofs of the rectory and church will have to be replaced, but the damage to the gym roof can be repaired without replacing the whole roof, he said. St. Vincent is still waiting on the contractor to complete work on the roofs.

One of the classrooms sustained water damage when rain leaked through the hole in the gym roof, Hobson said. And the bricks on the back wall of the office were blown off, and the wall will have to be replaced, he said.

The seven large HVAC units, five on the roof of the gym and two on the ground, also were damaged and are being replaced, Hobson said. 

One of the units was blown off the roof and landed on the playground, Hobson said, and the others were turned over, which is what damaged the roof.

St. Mary Villa, which was caring for fewer children because of the COVID-19 pandemic, was able to make other arrangements to provide heat and air conditioning in the meantime, Hobson said.

New HVAC units were delivered to the church the week of April 20 and work began to hook them up, Hobson said.

The estimate for the total cost of the repairs is about $225,000, most of which will be covered by insurance, Hobson said.

Like Assumption, St. Vincent was hit by the one-two punch of the tornado and the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Right after the tornado, about a week after, is when we were hit with this crisis,” said Heather Wilson, the parish secretary. “We had one service, then we were closed.”

The parish has been trying to stay in touch with parishioners through social media, Wilson said. And the parish has continued its outreach to its neighbors in North Nashville, which was hit hard by the tornado.

Through its outreach program, the parish is providing food, gift cards and some financial assistance to help people pay their utility bills, Hobson said. “We’re still trying to do our part. … People are really hurting.”

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