As a crowd of about 150 people stood in front of the historic Church of the Assumption in the Germantown neighborhood just north of downtown Nashville waiting for the steeple and cross to be reattached to the top of the church, Bishop J. Mark Spalding recalled the lyrics of the hymn “Lift High the Cross.”
“‘Lift high the cross. The love of Christ proclaim.’ These two lines are part of a hymn we’ve sung at Assumption and every parish in our diocese,” he said. The steeple and cross are “great symbols of our faith” which give hope, Bishop Spalding added. “There is good news to proclaim.”
On Wednesday, Dec. 15, a crane lifted the steeple back into place atop Assumption Church, built in 1859. The steeple was removed after the tornado of March 3, 2020, caused extensive damage to the church, which has been closed ever since while construction crews repair the building.
“It’s been a journey,” said Jack Goodrum, the owner of Goodrum Construction, the general contractor for the project.
Much of the work to this point has been structural repairs, Goodrum said. “A lot of things you don’t see were replaced,” he said.
At this point, the exterior repairs are nearly complete, he said, including work on the roof, exterior brick work, and installing a turnbuckle tie-rod truss system to reinforce the more than 160-year-old timbers holding up the roof.
The high winds from the tornado bent the steeple base, causing it to lean about 15 degrees, Goodrum said. The steeple had to be removed to replace the structural components holding it in place. It has been in storage at Campbellsville Industries Inc., of Campbellsville, Kentucky, which bills itself as “The Steeple People.”
The original steeple was added to Assumption Church in the 1880s. But that steeple came down during a storm in the 1940s, explained Father Bede Price, the pastor of Assumption.
“The 1940s were not a good time for the Church of the Assumption,” Father Price said. “It had begun a long decay.”
But in the early 1980s, Msgr. Bernard Niedergeses, then the pastor of Assumption, started a years-long restoration project that brought the church back to life and eventually kick-started a revival of the surrounding Germantown neighborhood, today one of Nashville’s attractions.
“Msgr. Bernard Niedergeses decided that an appropriate symbol for the restoration of the Church of the Assumption would be to re-erect a replica of the original steeple,” Father Price said. “So, this is also for us, as it was for Father Bernard, a symbol that the Church of the Assumption is having a resurrection.”
Bishop Spalding also blessed the cross that sits atop the steeple, which was the original cross put in place in the 1880s, and sealed inside it a relic of St. Roch, a 14th century saint who is invoked against plagues and is the patron saint of dogs. The relic is a gift to the parish from Cardinal Raymond Burke, who was Archbishop of St. Louis when Father Price served there.
“We are very fortunate that we are now beginning the final stage of the restoration of the Church of the Assumption,” Father Price said. “We have had a very, very long Lent, but Easter is certainly on the horizon.”
The tornado that damaged the church struck a week after Ash Wednesday and killed more than 20 people across the state.
Work on the repairs to the interior of the church will begin in January and is expected to take about a year, Goodrum said.
The steeple was put back in place just days after tornados left a trail of destruction across several states killing more than 70 in Kentucky, six in Illinois, four in Tennessee and two in Arkansas.
Bishop Spalding noted that people in communities in those states are asking the same kinds of questions “a year and three quarters ago Father Price and the leadership here at Assumption were asking.
“Never did we doubt our faith in Christ and how that faith will get us through,” Bishop Spalding said. “This day we remember it once again.”
Among those who gathered to watch the steeple take its place atop the church once again were Assumption parishioners Cameron and Gabriela Drury and their daughter Lily-Anne.
The Drurys were married at Assumption in 2015 and their daughter was baptized there just a few weeks before the tornado hit.
“To see the steeple go back on after the tragedy, I wasn’t going to miss it,” said Cameron Drury. “This is the biggest manifestation of the repairs since the tornado hit.”
“I’m so glad,” Gabriela Drury said. “It’s a symbol of hope.”
Also on hand was Barbara Gibson, Msgr. Niedergeses’ great niece.
“He absolutely loved this church,” said Gibson, who helped take care of Msgr. Niedergeses after he retired. “He poured everything into the restoration and keeping the church alive.”
Msgr. Niedergeses, who came from a family of carpenters and woodworkers, did much of the restoration work himself during his nearly 40 years as pastor of Assumption.
“Most would have given up on the church, but he didn’t,” Gibson said. “It’s an emotional day for me to see it come back to life.”
The total cost of the repairs will be more than $6 million, Father Price said. The bulk of that will be covered by insurance, but the parish will have to borrow about $1.2 million from the Diocese of Nashville to cover the rest.
The parish is getting ready to begin a fund-raising effort to pay its share of the repair cost, Father Price said.
As part of the restoration, the ceiling of the church will be decorated with stars. To help raise funds for the restoration, the parish is selling the stars to commemorate special events, such as baptisms, weddings and birthdays. The largest stars, Creator Stars, sell for $1,500 and symbolize the six days in which God created the world. Next are the Stars of Redemption, for $1,000, which represent baptism and also honor Mary. And the smallest stars, Stars of Bethlehem, sell for $500 and signify Jesus’ birth and incarnation.
Those interested in buying a star or making a donation can call the church office at 615-256-2729.