Repairs to Assumption Church after tornado slowed by COVID-19

The Church of the Assumption in Nashville sustained substantial damage from the March 3 tornado that swept through the Germantown neighborhood. The COVID-19 pandemic has slowed work on the repairs, which are expected to take two years and cost between $4 million and $6 million. Father Bede Price, pastor of Assumption, stands on scaffolding to examine some of the damage to the roof. Photos by Andy Telli

When a tornado swept through the Germantown neighborhood near downtown Nashville on March 3, the Church of the Assumption sustained such serious damage that it couldn’t be used safely.

“It was a pretty catastrophic event for the building,” said Father S. Bede Price, pastor of Assumption Church.

But Father Price and his parishioners want to restore the church, dedicated in 1859, to its former glory.

“We hope to raise enough money to restore it to its original condition,” Father Price said.

That will be a major project that already has been delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The parish is still waiting for an engineer’s report to determine the full extent of the damage and of the repairs that will be required. The pandemic, he said, “put us about two months behind schedule.”

“In the meantime, we’re focused on repairing the copper roofs on the other buildings,” including the rectory and Father Bernard Hall, which are on either side of the church, Father Price said. “All the copper roofs were damaged by all the debris” sent flying by the tornado, he said.

The original estimates put the cost of the repairs at $4 million to $6 million, and they could take up to two years to complete, Father Price said. Several stained glass windows were damaged; part of the west wall, collapsed; the powerful winds shifted the position of the roof, which caused damage to the walls of the church, including the south wall, which is leaning 5 inches; and the steeple was tilted and had to be removed to be repaired.

Repairs will be complicated by the age of the building and by trying to fuse modern materials and building techniques with those used 161 years ago, Father Price said.

Even before the tornado, it was difficult for the small parish to maintain the church, which is one of the oldest in the diocese.

Father Bede Price, pastor of Assumption, stands in front of where the altar was located before it was removed as part of the repairs.

“This church has needed so much work for so many years,” Father Price said. “So now we’re playing catchup.”

But in the midst of the damage, there has been some joy. In removing everything from the interior of the church to ready it for the repairs, workers made some new discoveries, including original stenciling on the walls that had been painted over, and a mural of the stigmata of St. Francis of Assisi that had been painted during the time Franciscan priests staffed the parish from 1915-1919.

The mural, which was painted directly onto the plaster that is now damaged, will not be able to be saved. But the parish would like to recreate the stenciling as they move forward with remodeling the church, Father Price said.

There also are plans to rebuild a tall pulpit that was used in the early 20th century, Father Price said.

“The church has difficult acoustics,” Father Price said. An electronic speaker system can distort the sound and make it even harder to hear, he added.

When the church was built, tall pulpits were used to raise the priest above the congregation as he preached so he could be heard, Father Price explained. The parish would like to rebuild the former pulpit, which included a canopy topped with a cross, to both make it easier for people to hear and to restore the church to its previous look, he said.

The parish is working with the firm Conrad Schmitt Studios of New Berlin, Wisconsin, to replicate the old pulpit and to decorate the church, Father Price said. “We want to make the church look like when Cardinal (Samuel) Stritch said his first Mass here.”

In removing murals from the altar area of Assumption Church, workers uncovered a mural depicting the stigmata of St. Francis of Assisi that had been covered up for decades.

Cardinal Stritch, the former Archbishop of Chicago who was the first American cardinal to serve in the Curia in Rome, was a Nashville native who grew up in Assumption Parish.

Insurance will pay for the repairs of the damage caused by the storm, but the parish will have to raise money to pay for any other improvements, Father Price said.

Like most parishes, it’s been a difficult year for Assumption. Weeks after the tornado, the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

“It’s made it very hard to get anything done,” Father Price said. “Some of our families haven’t been back in six months.”

The parish had to move Masses from the church, which could hold 350-400 people at full capacity, to chapels located in Father Bernard Hall and in the Buddeke House, which can accommodate about 175 people each. “Social distancing is difficult,” Father Price said.

He added a third Mass on Sundays to make social distancing easier, but more people ended up coming, he said. “It’s frustrating, but it’s a good frustrating.”

Assumption is one of the few churches in the Diocese of Nashville that offers a Latin Mass, and attendance at that Mass has remained consistent throughout the pandemic, Father Price said. The Mass draws people from throughout Middle Tennessee, Chattanooga, Kentucky and Alabama, he said. “Sometimes, families travel two hours” to come to the Latin Mass at Assumption, he said.