Nashville Tornado Destroys Historic Church

Episcopal News Service. May 8, 1998 [98-2152]

Patricia Templeton, Assistant to the rector of St. Timothy's Episcopal Church, Signal Mountain, Tennessee

(ENS) On April 16, the Thursday of Easter week, the parish that brought me back to the church, that called me into leadership and sent me to seminary was destroyed by a tornado that swept through Nashville.

Historic St. Ann's Episcopal Church had survived earlier disasters. When a fire raged through East Nashville in 1916, sexton Julius Campbell spent the day on the church roof with a hose, putting out each ember that landed there.

The sexton's heroics saved St. Ann's from the fire, but nothing could save St. Ann's this time. The 200-mile-an-hour whirlwind left the 116-year-old brick church in ruins. The Rev. Lisa Hunt, St. Ann's rector, and her children Max, 7, and Rose, 4, were at the church when the tornado hit that afternoon, the 10th anniversary of Lisa's ordination to the priesthood. Nashville had been under tornado watches most of the day and Lisa and her children had gone to the basement to wait out the storm.

"We went down to the basement and crouched against a wall, and the power went out and the day grew dark," she said. "We started saying the 23rd Psalm, 'The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.' We could feel the air pressure changing. We just waited."

When the winds finally stopped, Lisa and her children came upstairs to find the church gone. All that remained standing were the back wall and altar, Easter lilies still undisturbed on the reredos.

The other three walls and roof collapsed in the wind, crushing pews, stained glass windows, including a Tiffany window of St. Paul, and the organ and its massive bank of pipes.

But the whirlwinds of destruction also brought graces. One gift from the tornado was a time capsule found inside the cornerstone laid in 1882.

"When the workers lifted the lid on the cornerstone the box was there," Lisa said. "It is just amazing. I felt like it was the prize they left for us." Among the treasures inside the metal box were a Book of Common Prayer and hymnal, a Ladies Aid Society book, a May 10, 1882 edition of the Nashville Banner (which ceased publication after 122 years on Feb. 20 this year), a church newsletter and a scroll with the names of the rector -- T.F. Martin -- vestry, and church members who had contributed to the building of St. Ann's.

"This roll of parchment was on the 11th day of May, 1882 placed within the cornerstone of St. Ann's Protestant Episcopal Church and is designed to serve as a lasting record and memorial of the devoutly disposed men, women and children who in their zeal for God's honor and glory contribute to the erection of a house of prayer for the worship of the triune Jehovah," the well-preserved scroll said.

The finding of the time capsule restored some of the sense of the continuity with past generations of worshipers that the tornado had swept away.

I know how important that sense of continuity is to the people of St. Ann's. From the first time I slipped into a pew one Sunday 13 years ago I sensed that connection with the past.

Surrounded by stained glass windows given in memory of people who lived before the Civil War, I was always aware of how many generations of people had prayed in that holy space, how many people had received communion at that altar, how many baptisms, weddings and funerals had sanctified that ground.

The Saturday after the tornado, my husband and I journeyed from Chattanooga to Nashville. Although I had seen pictures on the news, had heard about the devastation from friends, I still had to see it with my own eyes. Like Thomas, I needed to place my own hands in the wounded side of this body of Christ.

Glimpses of the kingdom were there in the ruins. Among those who came to help were the grandchildren of Julius Campbell, the sexton who saved St. Ann's from the fire more than 80 years ago. Offers of sympathy and help have poured in from allover the world.

The gospel reading for the Sunday after Easter is the story of Thomas, who insists on seeing and touching the wounded body of Christ before he can believe that Christ is indeed risen and alive.

On that Sunday after the tornado the people of St. Ann's, led by the broken Paschal candle recovered from the rubble, processed by their wounded church to worship at an altar made of bricks from the ruins.

They came to hear the wounded Christ say to them, "Put your fingers here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt, but believe."

"The devastation is amazing," Lisa said. "But the good news is that we are still the people of God. We will continue on."

To help St. Ann's in its own rebuilding and in its efforts to help others affected by the storm send contributions to St. Ann's Tornado Relief Fund, St. Ann's Episcopal Church, 419 Woodland St., Nashville, TN 37206.

[thumbnail: Parishioners clear the ru...]