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Historic church in Nashville suffers damage from tornado


Assumption Church, Nashville

John Burger - published on 03/04/20 - updated on 03/04/20

Nearby Methodist church offers facilities for parish's Latin Mass until repairs completed.

Fr. S. Bede Price’s cat was acting strangely early Tuesday morning, howling and jumping up and down off the bed. The pastor of Assumption Church in Nashville got up to see what was the matter with it. He then heard a loud explosion outside, which turned out to be a nearby electrical transformer. When he looked out the window, he saw a street littered with debris — “twisted aluminum and all kinds of stuff.”

“I was probably still half asleep and thought a plane had crashed,” Fr. Price said in an interview Wednesday. “So I went out the front door, and the chimney slid off the roof and missed me by about 25 feet, which scared me to death.”

A strong tornado ripped through Tennessee at about 1 a.m. on March 3, leaving at least 25 deaths and a swath of destruction in its wake. There was no loss of life in Assumption parish, but the historic church suffered significant damage.

“It’s definitely not what I was prepared for when I took the job last summer,” Fr. Price said.

When he entered the pre-Civil War church, which was built in 1859, he found broken glass everywhere, pews knocked over, and the back wall of the sacristy collapsed.

“Vestments had blown all over the place,” he said. “I was afraid the church would collapse. I was particularly afraid the bell-tower would collapse, so I took the Blessed Sacrament out of the church and went out into the street. By that time it was all over. The whole thing must have taken all of 30 seconds. My neighbor was there, and people started to come out and look around. It was almost like we were in a movie. We have a lot of old trees, which were torn up by the roots. Power lines were down.”

On Wednesday morning, engineers were assessing the stability of the church’s walls, and workers were wrapping the church’s 100-year-old pipe organ in plastic to keep dust out. The metal portion of the steeple is leaning, but the brick portion appears to be stable, said the church’s office manager, Laura Cooper. “The roof and wall on the south side is the structural concern at this time, she said. “We are working with engineers to determine stability.”

Assumption, which is not in a residential neighborhood, is the Diocese of Nashville’s designated church for the older form of the Latin Mass, and devotees travel from great distances for it on Sundays. But the church also offers daily Mass, which is continuing in the parish hall. The historic Methodist church across the street offered to host the parish’s Sunday Masses until the church is repaired. Repairs will be needed on the roof, stained-glass windows and plaster work.

“Assumption has been the center of the traditional Catholic community in Nashville,” said parishioner Charlie Smith. “It means a lot to a lot of people. We’re hoping that it can be rebuilt, which I believe it can be, but it will be a long time before it will be back to the sort of grandeur it had before.”

Assumption, which is on the National Register of Historic Places and is the second-oldest church in Nashville, also hosts a Syro-Malabar community for its liturgy on Sundays. A temporary sanctuary is set up in the church hall, and the Syro-Malabar community most likely will use this on Sundays, as their community is smaller.

Fr. Price said that parishioners are responding to the call for volunteers to help clean up the mess.

The Diocese of Nashville issued a statement that said that employees of the diocese, parishes and schools have escaped harm. “We are assessing building damage at the Church of the Assumption, Holy Name, St. Vincent de Paul, and Holy Rosary as well as other parishes that are in the path of the storm.” Catholic Charities is in the process of contacting parishes to assess needs that they and their people may have.

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