Rebuilding of Dresden’s Tornado-Damaged Churches Underway


Construction is underway of the new Dresden Cumberland Presbyterian Church.

The Cumberland Presbyterian Church in Dresden was damaged beyond repair the night of Dec. 10, 2021.

By David Fisher

Staff Writer

A Dec. 10, 2021, EF-3 tornado decimated much of downtown Dresden, as well as other areas of the city. Local officials describe the tornado as the worst natural disaster in the city’s history. Miraculously, in a town with a population of approximately 3,000 people, the storm injured fewer than a dozen individuals, but caused more than $6 million in property damage.

The entire south side of the court square, where Dresden’s city hall, police department and fire department once stood was reduced to rubble.

In addition to the municipal buildings, as well as numerous homes and business that were leveled by the powerful tornadic winds, two long-standing landmarks were also destroyed - Dresden Cumberland Presbyterian Church and Dresden First United Methodist Church.

Although a few of the walls remained standing, both churches were determined to be unsafe and beyond repair. After church members weighed their options, including construction costs, they decided to rebuild at the same locations, but with slightly different floor plans.

Dresden Cumberland Presbyterian Church

Dresden Cumberland Presbyterian Church, located on the corner of Nelson and South Wilson Street just off the court square, was one of several structures in the City of Dresden that was destroyed. The Woodmen of the World Insurance building, Dresden Enterprise newspaper office and Southern Printing, located in adjacent buildings on South Wilson Street were also flattened by the storm.

Two of the church’s most senior and respected members, Junior and Winnie Moore, lamented the loss of their beloved church, saying, “It was a longtime landmark in the City of Dresden.”

Tom Reavis of E.T. Reavis and Sons, who is also in the congregation, said, “It was very traumatic to witness the church being torn down. It’s where I’ve gone all of my life. I’m sure my momma carried me up the front steps as a baby.” Reavis added, “Seeing the church over the years always triggered memories.”

However, tornado damage to the church and parsonage was determined to be too extensive and impractical to repair, so the decision was made to demolish what was left of the structure and rebuild it.

According to the church’s acting pastor, Mark Maddox, for the first three weeks after the church was destroyed, members met at the Weakley County Personal Development Center. After, they were offered the opportunity to worship with the congregation at Mt. Pleasant Methodist Church, located on Paris Hwy 54, and have done so ever since.

While digging through the debris, church leaders were surprised to discover the church bell that was lost over 70 years ago.

The bell was installed in the original church, which was founded in 1886 and was continued to be used when the church was rebuilt in 1946.

The bell signaled important church events, until the bell tower was walled up during renovation after a fire that occurred around 1962-1963.

Junior Moore, 95, who remembered the bell from his youth, stated the old bell was lost for a few years, until it was found during the summer of 2021. “I decided to go up in the attic and I spotted it with a flashlight. It was down in the well of the bell tower.” Using heavy equipment, the bell was removed on January 11, 2022, and restored by Russell Vancleave. Rather than placing the bell in a tower, as it was originally, it is housed in a separate structure on the ground.

“I can’t wait to hear it ring again,” Mr. Moore said. “We’re going to start ringing it every Sunday. I guess it’s been a long time since we’ve had a bell ringing in Dresden.”

Mrs. Moore stated the Tiffany-stained glass windows, which are very expensive, were installed in the original church. One of the windows was undamaged by the tornado and it was decided to reuse it in the east end of the church.

Maddox added, “Other stained-glass windows were damaged, but the broken pieces of glass were collected off the ground, remounted and incorporated into the decoration of the church.”

According to Maddox, none of the church’s 18 pews were damaged by the storm and are being reused in the new church. He noted the communion table and even the glass on top of it were salvageable. The altar art, adornments, cross and offering plates also escaped destruction.

“The new church is similar to what we had before, but there are a few changes,” Maddox said. “The new church will not have a basement. There are no upper Sunday school rooms. We have it all on one level. The fellowship hall is behind the sanctuary. We took the property that was occupied by our parsonage and used it for part of the building. We have two more bathrooms than we did previously. The sanctuary is nine feet wider than before, and I think it’s about six feet longer.” Other changes include an upgraded kitchen and a better video system.

“The church had two sod-laying parties on a couple of Saturdays recently and almost every member of the church showed up to help,” Maddox said. “Members of the community also pitched in to lend a helping hand. We’ve been very fortunate.”

Maddox announced, the church is nearing completion and will be open to the public as soon as the guardrails for the stairs are delivered and installed.

Church History

The Cumberland Presbyterian Church in Dresden, Tennessee, came into existence in 1828 at the house of Mears Warner by Rev. Richard Beard who preached from the text, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so shall the Son of Man be lifted up.” Rev. Beard was one of the pioneer preachers of Weakley County.

Mears Warner and James Julin were the first ruling elders of the Dresden church. The first members were Mears Warner and wife, Levi Calvert and wife, James Fair and wife, Squire McNeely and sister, Mullins and wife and several other members of the Julin family.

Mears Warner was the Commissioner who came to layout the town of Dresden and named it after Dresden, Germany, which was the birthplace of his father.

Dresden First United Methodist Church members gathered for groundbreaking on the grounds of the church after it was demolished.

Dresden's First United Methodist Church was damaged by a tornado that tore through downtown Dresden in December 2021.

Dresden First United Methodist Church

Dresden First United Methodist Church and the church’s Family Life Center, located at 105 S. Church Street, were destroyed by the powerful winds of a tornado that left sections of Dresden in ruins.

Brad Jordan, who served as pastor when the church was destroyed, and members of the congregation lamented the destruction of the historic house of worship, which many considered to be one of the most beautiful and well-maintained church buildings in the City of Dresden.

After clearing the lot, in preparation for rebuilding, and working out the details for the new church building, the church’s new pastor, Dennis Vance and other members of the congregation, gathered at the site on July 16, 2023, to participate in a groundbreaking ceremony.

The damage caused by the tornado is not the first major calamity that has befallen the church. A church building, which was constructed in 1923, after the previous building was destroyed by fire, was dedicated in 1924.

Just as the congregation at Dresden Cumberland Presbyterian Church was amazed over the discovery of the old bell, which was boarded up in the bell tower and forgotten for many years, members of Dresden First United Methodist Church were surprised to discover a relic of the past hidden within the walls of their church.

During demolition of the historic Dresden First United Methodist Church in February 2022, a copper cornerstone box (time capsule), which had been put in place in 1923, was found bricked-up inside a part of the church. Demolition halted temporarily to allow for the box to be carefully extracted from behind the building’s cornerstone.

Church trustee, Wayne McCreight, contacted Discovery Park of America in neighboring Obion County, and asked for help to safely extract the contents. The staff at Discovery Park conserved the materials and safely prepared them for viewing.

After a century in storage, folded paper documents needed to undergo a humidification, drying, and flattening process before being placed on display.

The majority of the items were well preserved, including an ear of corn. A letter wrapped around the ear noted it was of the Little Willice variety and was placed in the box by Weakley County Agriculture Agent R. E. Ellis. Ellis wrote, “May God’s richest blessings be with each farmer and those that depend on farmers as long as good old Weakley County continues to be populated with people.”

Historic church documents included: a typed letter from the church’s pastor at the time, S. L. Jewell, a short history of the church, correspondence relating to the building of the church, and official church rolls for 1923-1924.

The box also contained: Methodist hymnals and songbooks; a 1920 photograph of a young church member, Norma Leone Lewis, which was discovered inside a hymnal; Methodist newsletters, a document from the Boy Scouts of America; and Dresden Enterprise newspapers from 1924.

Discovery Park’s museum displayed the 24 artifacts found inside the cornerstone box from Jan. 21 to May 21, 2023. These items were seen by the public for the first time in 100 years.

According to McCreight, the church committee plans to create its own time capsule to inspire hope and to document the culture of today.

Pastor Vance stated, until Dresden First United Methodist Church is rebuilt, members are worshiping with the congregation at Pisgah Methodist Church, which is located on Hwy. 118 in the Pisgah Community, between Dresden and Latham.

History of Dresden First United Methodist Church

The Dresden First United Methodist Church building, which was constructed in 1923 after the previous building was destroyed by fire, was dedicated in 1924.

The church’s website notes that the Methodist Church has been in existence since the earliest days of the westward expansion, and as settlers came to West Tennessee so did Methodism.

The traditions of the church are steeped in a rich 150-plus year history.

According to church leaders, while the church is built on the commitments of the past, they look forward to a vital future as God’s people in a rapidly changing world.