When a tornado swept through the Germantown neighborhood near downtown Nashville on March 3, 2020, the Church of the Assumption sustained serious damage, rendering it unusable. Everything inside the 161-year-old church, including the altars, artwork, pews, organ and stained-glass windows had to be removed for the extensive renovations.
At that time, pastor Father S. Bede Price described it as “a pretty catastrophic event for the building.” Now, he says, “the damage is actually far worse than we first thought by eyeballing it.”
One year later, the church remains empty except for the network of floor to ceiling scaffolding. Much of the exterior is also wrapped in scaffolding as masonry workers begin to replace bricks blown off the building by the tornado’s powerful winds.
On March 3, 2021, the one-year anniversary of the tornado, workers cleaned and stacked bricks behind the church, pulling them from a pile where they have been lying in the back corner of the property for a year.
“Every building was damaged,” explained Jack Goodrum, the general contractor for the Assumption renovation project. “All four buildings had to get new roofs,” he added. That includes the church itself, Father Bernard Hall next door, the rectory, and the Buddeke House across the street. Three of the roofs have been completed, and the church roof is still a work in progress.
Work has been slowed by the coronavirus pandemic, and complicated by the age of the building and the challenging of fusing modern materials and building techniques with those used 161 years ago. An elaborate steel tie-rod system had to be designed to reinforce the heavy, wood timbered roof structure, Goodrum said, just one of the adjustments needed to work on the historic church.
With masonry work, stone restoration and structural reinforcement now moving forward at the church, Goodrum is hopeful that spring will bring good momentum to the project.
The parish’s historic bells were recently re-installed, and Goodrum expects that the stained-glass windows and some of the other interior finishes could be back in place by the summer. The steeple, which is currently in Kentucky for storage and restoration, could also be back in place by summer.
He estimates that it will likely take another full year for all of the repairs and renovations to be complete.
“We’re planning on Easter 2022 for everything to be back in place,” said Father Price. “We have to have patience.”
Insurance will cover much of the estimated $6 million project, but “we will have to do some fundraising,” 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. “We’re a poor parish and we’ve deferred so much maintenance for so long,” he said.
Assumption is a popular wedding venue, and “a big chunk of our income comes from weddings,” Father Price said. Losing that revenue for two whole years is a challenge for the parish, but “we’ll make that up,” he added.
“We hope to raise enough money to restore it to its original condition,” Father Price said of the church’s interior.
Parishioners, travelers, engaged couples and others have been drawn into Assumption by the beauty of the historic church, but now people are drawn to the parish by the celebration of the Latin Mass. Three out of four Masses Father Price celebrates every weekend are now in Latin, and they are the most well-attended.
For the last year, the parish has been celebrating Mass in Father Bernard Hall (the old Assumption school building) and the Buddeke House. Even though space is temporary and tight, “I see new faces,” continuing to join, Father Price said, some of whom have never been able to attend Mass inside the church.
The Syro-Malabar Catholic community has also been based at Assumption in recent years, bringing another language and culture to the historic parish.
The church, which was built in 1859 to serve the Catholic German-speaking community in the city, has seen many changes in the neighborhood and people it serves.
“Given its historical value and architectural value for the Church in the Diocese of Nashville, the Church in Tennessee,” there was never a question that Assumption would be rebuilt, Father Price said. “It’s a unique church. It survived the Civil War, two world wars, and two pandemics. 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.