For tornado-ravaged churches, rebuilding means rethinking
Mayfield, Ky. — Mayfield First United Methodist Church, a century-old temple with stately columns and stained-glass windows, has long been an anchor in the life of Kathy O’Nan, the city’s 68-year-old mayor.
She directed the children’s choir for 42 years and attended countless worship services and ceremonies, from weddings to funerals to the baptisms of both her children — before a massive tornado tore off the church’s roof and covered the front entrance in rubble.
“It was just my home,” O’Nan said. “For all of us, it was our home.”
First United Methodist is one of a half-dozen historic churches in the central core of this western Kentucky community that were destroyed or heavily damaged, all with roots dating to the 1800s. Most of their sanctuaries were more than 100 years old, constructed when worship spaces tended to be grand with amenities such as giant pipe organs, heavy wooden pews and the now-collapsed dome that once crowned the nearby First Christian Church.
While the rubble is still being cleared, it’s already apparent that Mayfield’s historic congregations, most with graying, shrinking flocks, are unlikely to rebuild in anything resembling their previous architectural glory. Their leaders say they must instead adapt to meet 21st-century needs and possibilities.
“People at the turn of the last century took great pride in building buildings they thought honored God, and that is no longer the style anymore,” said the Rev. Milton West, senior minister at First Christian.
“I think all of the congregations in the downtown area are using this experience to re-envision their ministries … and how they might make a difference in our community,” West added. “I think the whole town of Mayfield has an opportunity to reinvigorate itself. There were a lot of empty buildings when the storm hit.”
Firefighters say the tornado damaged or destroyed about 1,300 homes, businesses and houses of worship Dec. 10 when it swept through the close-knit town of some 10,000 residents.
Besides First United Methodist and First Christian, the red-brick First Presbyterian Church on Mayfield’s main street and Fairview Baptist Church, about a half-mile away, were destroyed as well. First Baptist Church and St. James African Methodist Episcopal Church sustained heavy damage that could take years to repair.
“These churches were a spiritual touchstone for the community,” West said.
His First Christian expects to receive at least $5 million from its insurance company. But that’s not enough to rebuild like before — replacing just the $800,000 organ and the Steinway piano would account for about one-fifth of the payout, according to the pastor.
Instead he envisions a more cost-efficient and workaday sanctuary for the future, noting that worshipers today are often content to attend services in run-of the-mill settings such as a metal building or gym.
“I doubt if we’ll ever have a building with a pipe organ in it again,” West said. “We were one generation away from not even having anyone who could play one.”
Leaders at the other three destroyed churches see things similarly.
The Rev. Joey Reed, who rode out the storm with his wife, Laurinda, in the basement at First Methodist, said that while he would love to see the original building restored, that will probably be too expensive. Instead, he said, it’s important for the church to devote its resources and energy to its core spiritual mission.
“Our mission is not to create or restore or maintain that historic architectural presence,” Reed said, “even though that is an important part of who we have been.”
Likewise, Don Barger, lay pastor of First Presbyterian, said his church must use its expected budget of $4.5 million to $5.5 million to design a building with the future in mind. That includes an opportunity to correct past oversights — the original structure lacked elevators and other accessibility features for people with disabilities.
“We’ve got to get away from our minds what the building looked like when it was built in 1914,” Barger said.
“We have become, at times, complacent,” he added. “When you’re having to start all over again, you can’t take anything for granted.”
The Rev. Leroy Brent, pastor for 33 years at Fairview Baptist, a predominantly Black congregation affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, recalled his shock at the devastation.
“I could stand on the steps that I would normally stand on every Sunday, and I didn’t know where I was,” he said. “There were no landmarks.”
But he’s optimistic about starting fresh due to the successes he’s seen in his background in church planting, or the seeding of new congregations.
“It gives you a completely new outlook,” Brent said.
The other two damaged downtown churches are not forced to rebuild from zero, but they still face costly and lengthy rehabs and have been rendered temporarily homeless while they try to minister to the shattered town.
“We don’t have a building, but other churches within our denomination have been sending us supplies,” said Thomas Bright, steward at St. James, which suffered major damage to its roof and sanctuary. “We got some U-Haul containers in our parking lot and we set up tables, so we’ve been distributing supplies, food, clothes, cleaning supplies, whatever we can, to the community.”
Bright has been shepherding the congregation even as he mourns his 80-year-old aunt, Ollie Reeves, who helped raise him as a boy. He found her body under debris at her home, one of 22 people in Mayfield and 77 statewide killed that night as storms tore through Kentucky.
Reeves’ death is a loss not only for him but for the congregation — she sang in the choir at the historically Black church, baked pies and cakes and helped with fundraisers.
Still, he’s keeping faith.
“Mayfield is a resilient town,” Bright said. “We’ll bounce back. Maybe not as big as we were before, but better.”
The Rev. Wes Fowler, who hunkered down with his family in a tunnel under First Baptist, cried as he talked about the damage to the church and elsewhere. Five generations of his family have worshiped at the church, where he is senior pastor.
“I know theologically that it’s just a building. And I know theologically that those who have placed our faith in Jesus Christ are the church. I know it deeply. I teach that all the time,” he said.
But a house of worship where people gather weekly becomes part of one’s identity, he continued, and losing that is traumatic.
“We’re focusing right now on our true hope, which was never supposed to be in a building,” Fowler said. “We serve a risen Savior who was the same before this tornado, was the same the day of the tornado and is the same now.”
For now the six displaced congregations are meeting at schools, other churches, even a manufacturing company’s break room.
O’Nan, the mayor, predicted a bright future for Mayfield’s churches but said letting go is hard.
“The same people will be there, and the same memories will begin to be made there again,” she said. “But looking in the beautiful stained glass, the beautiful organ, the smell of old oil that you know was used to clean the pews and that fragrance of candle wax when you walk into the church — that’s gone.”