MADISON, Tennessee — When Amy Lavender, principal of St. Joseph School in Madison, was first alerted with a prerecorded message by the fire alarm company early Dec. 11, she said she wasn’t sure what to think.
A tornado and severe high winds had hit middle Tennessee in the early morning hours as part of an outbreak of tornadoes that began late Dec. 10, crossed Tennessee, Kentucky, Arkansas, Illinois, Missouri and Mississippi, and left multiple people dead, injured and missing.
Lavender reached out to Father Jean Baptiste Kyabuta, pastor of St. Joseph Church.
“From where he was (in front of the church and school), he just said, ‘Everything is good. We’re just out of power,'” she told the Tennessee Register, newspaper of the Diocese of Nashville.
Later that morning as employees began to show up for various events, “they were like, ‘We’ve got bad damage,'” Lavender said.
Part of the school’s gym roof was missing, there was flooding in the building, some windows were broken, and several power lines and utility poles had come down. The lack of power led to the decision to close St. Joseph School early for Christmas.
In addition, the elm tree near the playground, which has been part of the school for decades, was destroyed by the storm.
From kindergarten through eighth grade, “I went to school at St. Joseph, and the tree was about half the size then,” recalled Jackie Sullenbarger, first-grade teacher, who has been teaching at St. Joseph for 30 years in multiple grade levels. “It had just grown into this massive, beautiful creation of God … shading probably half the playground.”
“It’s always been there,” she said. “For those of us that went to school at St. Joseph, we watched it grow.”
Sullenbarger, who graduated from the school in 1980, said she was sad when she learned the tree’s fate.
“Think of how many stories we have shared with each other underneath that tree; good and bad, funny and sad,” added Alicia Hatchett, a 1994 St. Joseph graduate and current kindergarten teacher. “All of the prekindergarten pictures that been made underneath that tree.
“The shade it provided for so many years to cool off the kids and the teachers. It was like the heart of the playground where everybody came,” Hatchett added. “I am just so sad about it.”
Lavender, who is in her first year as St. Joseph principal, said the school quickly called in professionals for their assessment of the building damage.
“As soon as it happened, we started calling SERVPRO (Restoration Services) and roofers to start getting the water out of the building and tarping and putting a temporary roof on,” she said. “The classrooms seem to be fine, but we won’t know what we’re dealing with electronically until the power is back on. Who knows what has blown or not blown?
“But ultimately the tangled web of downed power lines, the downed utility poles in the back, and the roof debris, which is up in the trees as well, are our biggest concerns,” she added.
Despite the damage done to the school, Lavender and other faculty and staff were thankful the storm happened when it did.
“Thank God it was on a weekend in the middle of the night, and there weren’t kids on campus or in the building because it would’ve been a really dangerous situation,” Lavender said. “Thankfully, too, in our community we haven’t heard of anyone who has lost homes. Everyone is safe and accounted for.”
Nanci Williams, who has taught prekindergarten at St. Joseph for the past 16 years, agreed. The “destruction of our school doesn’t even compare” to damage done to other schools during a March 2020 tornado, she said.
Lavender said she also was grateful for the outpouring of community support.
“We’ve had so many people from the community, alumni and parishioners wanting to help and so anxious to help, but the campus is unsafe right now with all the power lines down, so we’re really waiting for that cleanup,” she said. “As soon as we have volunteer opportunities available, we’ll be communicating through email and social media.”
Whether school will be able to resume Jan. 4 as scheduled is yet to be determined, though Lavender said they are hopeful.
St. Joseph Church was expected to resume weekend Masses for Dec. 18 and 19, provided the power is restored and potential hazards removed.
Parishioners of Our Lady of the Lake Church in Hendersonville, Tennessee, also suffered damage from the storms including tree damage and continuing power outages, but Carrie Melvin, parish life coordinator, said all parishioners were safe and unharmed, and no home was destroyed.
Peterson is on the staff of the Tennessee Register, newspaper of the Diocese of Nashville.