Third Tennessee church falls victim to tornado destruction

January 27, 1999

"We will rebuild, and it will be on the same spot in historic downtown Clarksville!" The message resonated from Rector David Murray, Senior Warden Steve Dial and members of the vestry and congregation of Trinity Episcopal Church, one of the oldest congregations in the Diocese of Tennessee, shortly after the church building was destroyed by a tornado on January 22.

The ornate 120-year-old structure, extensivly remodeled just nine years ago, was part of the destruction that turned downtown Clarksville, about 40 miles northwest of Nashville, from one of the state's most attractive historic districts into what many described as a "war zone," with rubble from 150 damaged or destroyed buildings clogging the once stately streets and walkways. Another of Clarksville's prominent churches, Madison Street United Methodist Church (which had just completed a $1.2-million renovation) was also destroyed, as well as the stately county courthouse.

Despite the damage, not one person died in the early-morning storm and only two minor injuries were reported, although fatalities were reported in other areas of Tennessee and Arkansas when a score of tornadoes were spotted as a severe weather front slowly moved through the mid-South. Murray and Doug Norfleet, pastor of Madison Street United Methodist Church, met amidst the rubble and agreed that the "church" is not either of their neighboring church buildings, but is rather the people who gather to worship and fellowship. Judging from the number present and their enthusiasm as each congregation held Sunday services in borrowed facilities, the church in Clarksville is very much alive.

Episcopal Bishop Bertram Herlong joined the Trinity congregation for worship that day. Speaking from the pulpit of Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, which has offered to share the use of its facilities with Trinity, the bishop noted a powerful image first suggested by a television news reporter. Although Trinity's roof had fallen in, the large limestone cross atop the front wall remained in place. "The cross is still standing, a symbol of hope," said Herlong. "The cross is a reminder of the power of God's love, which overcomes every adversity.

The question we face this morning is not what life has done to us, but what we will do with life. Does God just stand by watching in times of tragedy? No, God empowers us with hope and peace. God empowers us with love and the power to persevere. But we cannot do it by ourselves. That's why we need the church and the church needs us-to help us move confidently into the future no matter what perils are before us. The cross is still standing." In a meeting with the congregation, Herlong noted that this was the third time in 10 months that Episcopal churches in the Diocese of Tennessee, which covers the middle part of the state, had been destroyed by tornadoes. St. Anne's Church in Nashville and St. John's in Mt. Juliet were destroyed last April when two tornadoes ripped through downtown Nashville and beyond. St. Anne's rector, Lisa Hunt, and its lay leadership have already met with the Trinity leaders to share their experience and insights on working through insurance and reconstruction issues. Herlong noted that moral and financial support for the two Episcopal churches hit last April was received literally from all over the world.

A tornado assistance fund has been set up by the Episcopal Diocese of Tennessee, 50 Vantage Way, Suite 107, Nashville, TN 37228. Information also is available at the diocesan web site:

--Bill Dalglish is the former vicar of St. John's Church.

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