NASHVILLE, Tennessee — As a crowd of about 150 people stood in front of the historic Church of the Assumption in 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, Spalding added. “There is good news to proclaim.”
On 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.”
At this point, the exterior repairs are nearly complete, he said, including work on the roof, exterior brick work, and installation of 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.”
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 L. 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,” 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 at least 88 people, including four in Tennessee.
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,” Spalding said. “This day we remember it once again.”
The total cost of the repairs will be more than $6 million, 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, Price told the Tennessee Register, Nashville’s diocesan newspaper.
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 of Bethlehem,” sell for $500 and signify Jesus’ birth and incarnation.
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Telli is managing editor of the Tennessee Register, newspaper of the Diocese of Nashville.