Westminster (Hattiesburg, Miss.) looks to bright future with new additions

wm2By Emily Ham Price

The future of Westminster Presbyterian Church looks bright to the Rev. Steve Ramp — and it’s not because of the church’s additional windows and skylights.

A year and a half after an EF4 tornado left Westminster devastated and broken, Ramp said the Hattiesburg church is on the mend, and he hopes his congregation can return to its updated church home by Christmas Eve.

“We’ve had such strong support from the community in rebuilding,” he said. “When this gets rebuilt, this isn’t just going to be a victory for Presbyterians — this is going to be a victory for the entire Hattiesburg community.”

wm1Ramp said early on, Westminster’s congregation decided to look for a silver lining after the storm and found it in the form of structural changes, additions and repairs that could be made while recovering from the tornado.

“Ironically, the tornado has given us the opportunity to do what we never could have done,” he said. “We were talking about expanding and remodeling, and we’ve had to do an extreme makeover. This is going to be a much better final product.”


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Inner progress: Westminster holds first communion in restored sanctuary

westminsterBy Ellen Ciurczak

More than 100 members of Westminster Presbyterian returned Sunday to the church damaged in the Feb. 10 tornado to take communion and celebrate the rebuilding of their place of worship.

The restored sanctuary still had no altar, pews or flooring, but its stained glass windows glowed with light, as the bread and wine were passed around the circle.

“It’s a beautiful experience,” said parishoner Kay Moore, who like the others at the church has been attending services at Parkway Heights United Methodist Church ever since the tornado struck.

“It’s very poignant that we’re almost a year in time to the tornado,” she said. “It’s wonderful that we were able to preserve the heart of this church — the sanctuary.

“I feel the presence of God here.”

Pastor Steve Ramp had invited members of the congregation to take a tour of the church to see the progress that had been made in the year since the tornado.

“The first Sunday after the tornado we came back and we got in a circle and I said a prayer,” he said. “This is the first time we’ve been back since then.”


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Westminster Presbyterian Church in Hattiesburg rebuilds after tornado



By Emily Ham Price

Sitting at 115 N. 25th Ave. for more than 60 years, Westminster Presbyterian Church has been full of laughter, singing, praising and rejoicing.

But four months after an EF4 tornado tore through Hattiesburg, leaving the church battered and torn, it now is filled with the sounds of hammers, saws, cranes and construction workers.

The Rev. Steve Ramp said while he watches his church begin its reconstructive journey, he can still remember the destruction the Feb. 10 tornado left behind.

“It was so devastating at first to see the roof blown off and the bricks in the street,” Ramp said. “It was overwhelming, really.”

With Larry Albert acting as the project’s architect and Butch Nobles as the general contractor, Ramp said he and his congregation are excited to see the church restored to its former glory.

“It’s beginning to look like it’s feasible, and like it’s coming together,” Ramp said. “It’s neat to see (construction crews) preserving and enhancing what is here.”

Nobles said the destruction done to Westminster Presbyterian affected him on a personal level.

“I was emotionally in shock. We are also members of Westminster. (My wife) Cindy and I were married by the former pastor and our two daughters were baptized in the sanctuary. That was also why it was a difficult decision to take on this project, it is our close family,” he said. “Nobles Contracting was also the general contractor on the USM fence and landscape project, so we had tornado encounters twice.”


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A church resurrected in New York

mayfield1Fire destroyed a New York church just four days after Easter in 2011. On Easter Sunday this year, Mayfield Presbyterian Church members found themselves seated for their first service in a new sanctuary.

The new sanctuary was built and finally occupied after the membership of Mayfield raised the funds to reconstruct a larger and more modern facility to replace the one that burned after being in use since 1823.

Mayfield Presbyterian Church, located at the base of the Adirondack Mountains on Great Sacandaga Lake between Syracuse and Albany, was founded in 1792 as a Dutch Reformed Church that became Presbyterian in the early 1800s.

The 130-member church met in the nearly 190-year-old building until a fire sparked by lightning on April 28, 2011, destroyed the facility. Around 6:30 a.m. on April 28, lightning struck the bell in the steeple, knocking it off its cradle and sending it crashing through the roof of the church.

Once inside the sanctuary, the bell exploded, rapidly igniting the structure and burning it. The building sustained heavy fire and water damage, leaving very little to salvage. As a result, all that was left standing was demolished to make way for new construction.

newmayfield2“It was just overwhelming,” the Rev. Bonnie Orth said as she recalled the fire.  “It still is. I can still see it and remember the looks on the faces of people from our congregation whose ancestors helped build the church. The whole community felt the impact of our loss.”

Undaunted by the devastation of losing their building, Orth and members of Mayfield pressed on in their continued service and worship of the Lord. They rented auditorium space at nearby Mayfield High School and met there until their new facility was ready for occupation.

Orth said the fire happened just before members were supposed to engage in their first annual CROP Walk to raise funds to help eliminate hunger around the world. The event is sponsored by Church World Services, and 75 percent of the funds raised through donations are used globally, while 25 percent remains to be used in the local community.

Not even the darkness of losing their place of worship diminished the light of Mayfield’s members as they kept their pledge to walk and raise money.

“I was thrilled they wanted to go ahead with it,” Orth said of the resolve shown by congregants. “They knew it was something needed, and they wanted to go through with it.”

A decision to rebuild at the site of their former facility quickly was reached, Orth said, noting that Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA) provided help to the congregation that was invaluable in moving ahead with plans to continue ministry in Mayfield.

Orth said additional land was purchased to make the new facility bigger than the previous one. Construction started last summer and was completed in late March, just in time for the building to be occupied for Easter.

mayfield4The single-level facility has 7,444 square feet and includes the sanctuary,  and space for a fellowship hall as well as classrooms, a nursery, choir room, conference room, food pantry, kitchen and offices at a price tag of around $1 million.

The congregation initiated a fundraising campaign to meet the costs of the facility, and they were given tremendous assistance from other churches and the surrounding community, from both financial and support avenues.

Orth said the facility is energy-efficient and totally handicapped-accessible, and includes radiant floor heating to accommodate rooms that are much larger than in the previous building.

“It’s bigger and really is a beautiful facility,” Orth said of the new church building. “It’s really unbelievable. It’s still hard for a lot of our members because it’s different from what we had before and were accustomed to. We are so blessed to come out of such a tragedy as we have. God pushes you to move forward, and He walks with you along the way.”

On the two-year anniversary of the fire (April 28, 2013), members of Mayfield Presbyterian Church took part in their annual CROP Walk, again providing a blessing to others in much the same way they have been blessed through construction and occupation of a new place of worship.

Along with the CROP Walk to raise funds to combat hunger, members of Mayfield also wanted to provide support and encouragement to other churches ravaged by such tragic circumstances. They decided they wanted to do something to help Westminster Presbyterian Church in Hattiesburg, Miss. That church suffered significant damage from a tornado that ripped through the town in early February, sending worshippers to an alternate location until repairs can be completed.

Orth said Mayfield had a service of lament and service of blessing for its church and Westminster. Papers salvaged from the fire were placed in the baptistery water at the new church and stirred until they were turned to pulp. Then that pulp was made into rag paper after drying and cut up into smaller pieces.  On those pieces of paper were written words of encouragement, passages of Scripture and other blessings by church members, and made into two framed pieces of art. One of them remains at Mayfield; the other will be delivered to Westminster by Orth on May 19 along with a booklet that describes Mayfield’s story of recovery and resurrection. The piece of art is to be passed on to churches that go through such disasters.

“We know what it is like to lament, and we also know what it means to be blessed,” Orth said of the rationale for such an endeavor. “We have been bathed in God’s blessings, and we want to pass those along to our brothers and sisters in Christ. It’s a way to help with the healing process.”

mayfield5Mayfield Presbyterian Church also has used items recovered from the fire at its long-time structure in and around the new facility. Twenty-foot beams taken out of the former building were constructed into a cross by members of a nearby Amish community, and they joined Mayfield’s membership for an old-fashioned cross-raising ceremony.

The fire destroyed six of the eight stained glass windows in the old building, but members recovered shards of glass from those windows and have put them to use. They were constructed into a mosaic glass top for the communion table, with each member receiving a shard and placing it on the table as they took communion.

“The concept is that you come broken and are made whole at the table,” Orth explained. “It’s another part of the process to help us grieve and heal.”

Occupancy for the new facility actually could have taken place on March 28, but members of the congregation decided that Easter Sunday was more appropriate, further depicting their own resurrection and that of their place of worship after it was destroyed.

“We could have gone in on Maundy Thursday, but it made more sense to us to have our first service on Easter,” Orth said. “You could see the resurrection all around us. Everywhere you looked, you saw it. The opportunity for ministry opened right before our eyes. It was a joyous service.”

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Westminster Presbyterian Church makes progress in tornado recovery

churchBy Elizabeth Googe

The demolition process on the two church buildings that were part of Westminster Presbyterian Church has been completed. Reverend Steve Ramp says it’s still slow moving with the insurance company, but the staff and church members are making do.

“While it’s not the speediest process with the insurance company, we are still a family.  Parkway Heights United Methodist Church has really opened their doors and hearts to us,” said Ramp.

All services for Westminster have been temporarily moved to Parkway Heights UMC.  Westminster has also set up a relief fund at BancorpSouth.  If you or someone you know would like to contribute, checks may be made payable to Westminster Presbyterian Church Relief Fund.  The donations can be mailed to BancorpSouth, Attn. Debbie Hudson at 124 Hardy Street.


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Westminster congregation still serves and worships despite displacement

westminster2A devastating tornado that caused substantial damage to Westminster Presbyterian Church in Hattiesburg, Miss., has not hampered the congregation’s ability to worship and serve the Lord.

Members of Westminster have been sharing facilities with the congregation of a local Methodist church for worship services while insurance adjustments and, ultimately, repairs to their sanctuary take place.

“We were offered an opportunity to worship at Parkway Heights Methodist Church, and we have been doing that for six weeks now,” Westminster Pastor Steve Ramp said. “That has worked out beautifully and has been very nice for all of us. We’ve had some joint services, gotten to know a lot of other people and made some new friends. It has been really meaningful.”

Ramp explained that Parkway has an 8:30 a.m. contemporary service on Sundays before leaving the sanctuary for Westminster to have its 9:30 a.m. service. Parkway’s members then have their 11 a.m. traditional service. On Wednesdays, the two churches share a meal together before splitting for their evening services.

“The hospitality factor from the Methodists has been so warm and inviting,” Ramp said. “We feel like we are partners, and it means a lot to them to be able to help us. They don’t just say that, they mean it, and our folks feel very comfortable with them.

“(Parkway members) have a beautiful, spacious facility and have been so cordial. It really has taken a lot of angst out of this situation for us.”

westminster3That angst was brought on by the tornado that ripped through Hattiesburg Feb. 10. The Westminster sanctuary that had stood for more than five decades was battered and beaten by the powerful EF3 tornado packing winds of 145 mph that ripped through the south-central Mississippi town around  5:20 p.m. (CST).

Left along the tornado’s path were downed trees, power lines, flipped and smashed cars, and heavily damaged homes and buildings. The twister caused damage that probably will reach into millions of dollars for the church, ripping the roof off the sanctuary, blowing out windows and leaving gaping holes in the walls of the structure. Three other buildings on the grounds – including one that housed the offices of the Mississippi Presbytery – also were destroyed by the storm’s ferocity.

While things are working well holding services at Parkway Heights, members of Westminster want to return to their own facility. That will take place, but it may be a while.

Ramp said there was good news regarding the damage to the Westminster property. Two different structural engineers examined the sanctuary and adjoining structures, and both determined that the structural integrity had not been compromised. Therefore, repairs rather than reconstruction are in order.

“We were told the structure had been deemed repairable,” Ramp said, noting that the foundations, sanctuary and first floor of the facility were in pretty good shape.  “It will be a massive remodeling project, but it can be repaired.”

westminster4While there is damage throughout, the bulk of the work will take place on the second floor and roof areas.

Ramp said the steel rafters were twisted and tangled, the woodwork was ripped apart, all the windows were blown out, and the roof was blown off the structure during the tornado, leaving some gaping holes. All of that will have to be addressed, in addition to any other repairs.

Three buildings adjacent to the sanctuary were destroyed, and the church already has received payment in the amount of $400,000 for them from the insurance company. However, adjusters still are crunching the numbers for the sanctuary and adjoining wings of the church to determine the damage. Though no dollar amount has been given yet, Ramp anticipates the damage assessment will be substantial in light of the damage caused by the tornado.

He said a meeting has been held with church members to apprise them of the situation and what will take place.

“We’ve told them we are going to make the repairs and be stronger than ever,” Ramp said. “We’re hoping that within a month we’ll be ready to start repairs. It would be awesome if we could do that, but we don’t know. We’re probably looking at a year, maybe more, before we can move back in. That’s still an unknown right now.”

In the meantime, Westminster members can cling to the fact that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, albeit a faint one right now. It will come into clearer view and get brighter as the process goes along.

“It’s been really heartwarming to see all support we’ve been given,” Ramp said. “We’ve gotten so much response from churches here and across the country. The EPC, PCA, PCUSA, Methodists, Baptists – it’s just been outstanding to see so many help with their contributions and work at the church.”

Ramp said he attended a Rotary meeting not long ago and was handed a check for $1,000 to assist with the repairs. A church in Tuscaloosa, Ala., suffered a similar situation at Easter two years ago. Because of that common experience, the Tuscaloosa congregation sent $5,000 to aid the relief effort.

westminster6Plenty of cards and letters of encouragement have been passed along with the financial support.

“It really does say that denominational lines and issues that exist mean very little when things like this happen,” Ramp said. “When it comes right down to it we see people in great need and our hearts go out to them, very generously and very willingly. We’re all in this together, and that’s how it should be. The world is watching, and this makes a strong statement for the very Body of Christ to operate in a unified way.  It’s very encouraging to see that.”

The relief fund for Westminster Presbyterian Church has been established at BancorpSouth in Hattiesburg, and more than $90,000 has been contributed to assist with expenses related to the damage caused by the tornado.

“Our local bank, BancorpSouth, has been very helpful handling a Relief Fund for us,” Ramp said. “They log in receipts and send us the information so we can include them in our records, and the Presbyterian Women can write personal thank you notes. It makes us feel valued, loved and hopeful.”

To contribute to the fund, make checks payable to Westminster Presbyterian Church Relief Fund and send them to BancorpSouth, Attn. Debbie Hudson, 124 Hardy St., Hattiesburg, MS 39401.

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Dealing with the tornado’s destruction

For 50 years, the sanctuary of Westminster Presbyterian Church has been a place of refuge for those seeking to hear the Word of God and come to know Jesus Christ. It has been a haven for many.

Westminster3In less than 30 seconds on a Sunday evening, the sanctuary that has stood for more than five decades was battered and beaten by a powerful EF3 tornado packing winds of 145 mph that ripped through the south-central Mississippi town of Hattiesburg.

Left along the tornado’s path were downed trees, power lines, flipped and smashed cars, and heavily damaged homes and buildings. Not even Westminster Presbyterian Church, founded in 1954, was spared the tornado’s wrath when it ripped through a swath of Hattiesburg on Feb. 10.

Now, the leaders and members of the church are trying to pick up the pieces and move on with their mission to share God’s Word.

Westminster Pastor Steve Ramp said the tornado that chewed its way through Hattiesburg caused damage that probably will reach into millions of dollars for the church, ripping the roof off the sanctuary, blowing out windows and leaving gaping holes in the walls of the structure. Three other buildings on the grounds – including one that housed the offices of the Mississippi Presbytery – also were destroyed by the storm’s ferocity.

No one was at the church when the tornado churned its way through the town. Ramp said there had been an afternoon concert of sacred music at 3 p.m. Most people left the church by 4:30 p.m., and others were supposed to be back at 6 p.m. for children’s activities. The tornado struck around 5:20 p.m. (CST).

“Between those times, the freight train rolled through and just tore things up in the community,” he said. “We don’t have a complete assessment, but it’s looking like there’s millions of dollars of damage. Under the best of circumstances it may be a year before we are back in business at this location.”

Westminster1Ramp said the building, constructed in 1963, was built with structural steel and reinforced concrete. Church members are hopeful a team of engineers can determine if the facility is still structurally sound enough for repairs to be made. If not, it may have to be demolished.

“We’re hopeful (engineers) will say it can be repaired, but we’ll just have to wait and see,” he said.

In the meantime, members of Westminster have been doing what they can in terms of cleanup efforts and attempts to salvage items from their facility. They’ve not been alone in their efforts.

“Along with our members, we’ve had 100 volunteers from the EPC (Evangelical Presbyterian Church), and Presbyterian Church (USA) come to our aid, and we’ve had Baptist and Methodist denominations offer space for services,” Ramp said. “So many churches have reached out to us. They have said, ‘We’re the body of Christ, and we want to help you.’

“These denomination lines we’ve drawn and lived with … when the chips are down and people need help, these (lines) really don’t matter. We were in trouble, and these people have rallied to our aid.”

Ramp indicated that the Westminster congregation, comprised of about 210 members, will be meeting at Parkway Heights United Methodist Church for Sunday morning worship services and Wednesday services. Parkway Heights, located a short distance from Westminster, was unscathed by the tornado, and Ramp said meeting so close to their own church may make members feel better emotionally.

Things looked bleak Monday morning (Feb. 11) when members and volunteers arrived in the rain and saw the full extent of the damage.

“We were so discouraged Monday morning,” Ramp said. “It was pouring rain, and all that rain and wind was coming through the holes in the roof and walls. Trees were lying against the sanctuary. It was discouraging to look at it, a bit overwhelming.

“But we’ve had a lot of lay leadership emerge. When people saw the carnage, they were moved by it.  This place has been teeming with people.  We’ve sawed and removed 30 trees, removed debris and made this look like a church again.”

On Tuesday, Feb. 12, after two days of cleanup efforts, members of Westminster gathered together on the church grounds. Joining hands as a united body, they prayed.

“People are encouraged and hopeful now,” Ramp said. “We can see the light at the end of the tunnel.”

And members want to take that light to others in the community also devastated by the tornado. Ramp said the desire of the church’s membership is to secure its property and begin to focus on others who need assistance.

“A lot of people were not spared,” he said. “We plan to send people out into the community to provide assistance to others in need. A crisis like this really mobilizes Christian people wanting to help. We’ll be deploying people to homes to find out what the needs are for people affected by the tornado.”

Westminster also has established a relief fund at BancorpSouth in Hattiesburg. Ramp said money contributed to the relief fund will be used as needed by the church and also to address issues in the community that came about as a result of the tornado.

To contribute to the fund, make checks payable to Westminster Presbyterian Church Relief Fund and send them to BancorpSouth, Attn. Debbie Hudson, 124 Hardy St., Hattiesburg, MS 39401.

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Westminster Presbyterian Church devastated by tornado in Hattiesburg

Torando Damage16

The powerful tornadoes that churned their way through south-central Mississippi into neighboring Alabama Sunday evening left devastation in their wake.

While there were no deaths associated with a powerful twister that struck Hattiesburg, it did lead to widespread damage to buildings, homes, cars and a church. Scores of people – as many as 60, according to various reports  – were injured, and seven counties were placed under a State of Emergency issued by Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant.

Westminster Presbyterian Church, located about a block away from the University of Southern Mississippi campus, was hit hard by the storm, which also caused damage to the offices for the Mississippi Presbytery.

“That’s a devastating blow to Westminster; it’s a great church,” said the Rev. Michael Herrin, pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Port Gibson in western Mississippi near Vicksburg and a former stated clerk of Mississippi Presbytery. “This will be like having to start over.”

Online photos of the church show large trees leaning against the building and others lying along the grounds, many of them snapped like twigs. Portions of the church’s roof are missing, windows are smashed, walls are crushed and piles of rubble litter the lawn and driveway surrounding the structure.

Current Administrative Presbyter Dr. John Dudley said the church suffered extensive damage, and three other buildings on the property were destroyed. The presbytery office was removed from its foundation, moved some 6 feet, and Dudley said there was little left to salvage following his site visit on Monday.

“It was tremendously frightening,” Dudley said, describing the sound as that of the classic freight train mentioned so often when tornadoes strike an area. “We went through Katrina, and it was a lot like that, only it lasted 30 seconds instead of 12 hours.”

Dudley said no firm decisions have been made about the future of the presbytery office, though there has been an offer of some office space available made by a congregation in Laurel.

Congregants of Westminster, which has about 200 members, will be holding services in a nearby Methodist church for the foreseeable future.

While the debris was scattered everywhere from the tornado’s destructive path, Dudley said members of the Westminster congregation were rallying together with others in the community.

“I was really impressed with how many of the church members and community members were there cleaning up the debris on the church yard,” he said. “There was a pastor from Jackson, 100 miles away, there helping.  They are rallying, there’s no doubt about it.”

Officials with the university issued a statement noting that several buildings had been damaged, but there were no injuries. The tornado snapped trees on the campus grounds, blew out windows in buildings and ripped a portion of the roof of the Alumni house.

Torando Damage15Along the storm’s path, homes suffered extensive damage, vehicles were smashed, trees were broken or uprooted, and power lines were downed, leaving thousands without power.

The tornado twisted its way through Hattiesburg, which straddles Forrest and Lamar counties, around 5 p.m. (CST) Sunday and was nearly a mile in width. Several hundred homes were damaged, according to initial assessments by the Mississippi  Emergency Management Agency.

According to The Associated Press, the twister has been deemed an EF3 tornado with wind speeds reaching 145 mph. The path of destruction for the tornado was roughly 75 miles long.

USA Today indicated that there were 15 reports of tornadoes Sunday night in Mississippi and Alabama.

Residents interviewed by various media outlets likened the storm and its devastation to Hurricane Katrina, which wreaked havoc along the Gulf Coast in 2005.

Herrin said he would like to see churches, even though not under the umbrella of the PCUSA, across Mississippi come together to aid the Westminster congregation and others facing the devastation brought on by the powerful tornado.

“I’m hopeful all churches in Mississippi, regardless of denomination, will help out,” Herrin said. “It’s the only thing to do. These are our brothers and sisters in Christ. We’re going to help them, that’s the bottom line.”

Dudley said there already have been offers of financial assistance made in support of Westminster as well as the presbytery. Any additional offers of assistance in any form can be made by calling Dudley at 601-446-5716.

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