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Black Mayfield church home to Helen LaFrance mural still rebuilding after tornado

Abigail Lonsway

A historic Black church in the heart of downtown Mayfield is still recovering nearly two years after being hit by a devastating EF-4 tornado.

St. James African Methodist Episcopal Church suffered severe structural damage in the storm, which destroyed thousands of structures across the state and killed more than 80 people in December 2021.

The church was founded in 1868, but the house of worship hit by the storm was built a century ago – in 1923. One of the things that survived the storm is a faded mural on the wall behind the pulpit depicting Jesus praying in the garden of Gethsemane – a permanent mark on the crumbling church walls. The mural was painted by acclaimed artist Helen LaFrance, a Black Mayfield native renowned for her paintings of rural Kentucky memories.

In the wake of the storm, the National Trust for Historic Preservation awarded the church $100,000 to preserve the mural, rebuild the house of worship and expand to better serve its community. The Kentucky Heritage Council provided structural technical support.

Abigail Lonsway

Nearly two years later, the church is still under construction.

Thomas Bright, a steward and trustee at the church, most of the donated funds have been used for “the resurrection” of St. James AME and its facilities, in addition to debris removal after the storm.

“When the tornado came the church was basically destroyed, and the $100,000 was used for building the foundation back and putting roofs on the annex, community center, and the church,” the church trustee said. “Hopefully, when it's said and done, within the next year everything will be restored and we'll be able to come back into church and worship and do things for the community like we've always done.”

Bright described the mural – which is currently hidden from the chapel room by plywood, an upgrade from the plastic tarp placed over it directly after the storm – as “a keepsake treasure.”

“[It’s] part of the history of the church. When you first walk into the church, the first thing you see when you look straight ahead is the [mural],” he said. “We’d like to get all that restored so when you walk through the doors of the church, it kind of brings a reverence to [it] … to know that you’re in a sanctuary of God.”

Until the reconstruction is complete, the congregation of St. James will continue to meet at Mayfield’s Church of Nazareth. Bright said the two churches have become family, joining one another for events and some services.

“They have been so good to us and welcomed us with open arms, and opened their hearts and their church to us,” Bright said. “We appreciate the help and the love that they have shown us.”

The funds from the National Trust donation went toward the reconstruction of the chapel room and the reinforcement of the mural wall. A restoration of the mural, which Bright dates as more than 80 years old, will come after the structure is fully rebuilt. Bright said the church is still seeking support to fully fund its reconstruction.

“We are still looking for funding and donations to finish the project,” he said. “We appreciate … any help that we can get at this point.”

Abigail Lonsway is a student at Murray State University. She enjoys music, the arts, and pop culture. She majors in TV Production.
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