From the Worldwide Faith News archives

Episcopalians: Texas Episcopalians find themselves at center of Columbia tragedy

Date Mon, 3 Feb 2003 15:58:43 -0500

February 3, 2003


Episcopalians: Texas Episcopalians find themselves at center of 
Columbia tragedy

by Steven Lightfoot

(ENS) The breakup of the Columbia orbiter over the vast north 
central area of the Diocese of Texas, which includes Houston's 
Johnson Space Center within its boundaries, has opened an 
intimate window to the tragedy for the diocesan community. 
Churches in the NASA area and in the path of the Columbia debris 
field came together in the aftermath of the recent national 

One of the Columbia astronauts' children attended second grade 
at St. Thomas the Apostle Episcopal School in Nassau Bay, south 
of Houston. "[Mission Specialist] Laurel Clark's eight-year-old 
son is a second grader at the school," said the Rev. John 
Musgrave, rector of the parish. "The congregation is deeply 
affected by the loss of his mother," he added.

Soon after the shuttle broke apart, diocesan employee Rebecca 
Sweitzer received a message from her sister-in-law, Marilyn 
Boone, in Jasper.

"I heard the shuttle when it broke up," Boone said. "It was a 
long, rolling, thunderous, roaring noise that went on and on." 
She added, "My friends in Nacogdoches tell me that it isn't Do 
you have debris in your yard?' but How much debris do you have 
in your yard?'" 

Saturday morning, as debris from the spacecraft littered the 
highway and roadside, the Rev. Gary Hill, rector of Christ 
Church in Nacogdoches, was on his way to a vestry retreat.  "I 
saw pieces of stuff' on the road, but I did not know what they 
were until I arrived at the retreat," he said.

Hill reported that the vestry watched some of the broadcast news 
and then prayed for the astronauts and their families.	"Our 
hearts were broken," he added.

Seeking solace

Christ Church in Nacogdoches reported an increase in Sunday's 
attendance, as did many other congregations. 

The Rev. Hugh Bell, rector of St. Cyprian's in Lufkin, said that 
his Sunday service included a dedicated Eucharist for the 
astronauts and their families. The Collect for Burial was read 
from the Book of Common Prayer and the names of the astronauts 
were included in the Prayers of the People. Many congregations 
whose churches lie in the path of Columbia's debris field had 
similar Sunday services. Some read the passage from Isaiah 40 
quoted by President George Bush in his initial address to the 
nation immediately following the tragedy.

"We had to go over the grounds to ensure that the school could 
open," Bell said, expressing the congregation's concern that 
hazardous debris could endanger students at St. Cyprian's 
Episcopal School, adjacent to the church.

Personal friends

South of the fallout, in Houston, the effects of the Columbia 
disaster were less immediately hazardous but equally 

Musgrave said that his parish held a Saturday night prayer vigil 
the evening of the tragedy. More than 300 people attended. 
Numerous NASA employees and their families are parishioners at 
St. Thomas the Apostle, including many who knew the Columbia 
crew personally. 

Holy Trinity in nearby Dickinson also held a memorial service 
Saturday night.  "The Saturday night service helped parishioners 
and the greater community focus on the tragedy," the Rev. James 
Hamilton said. A local Indian family attended to honor Mission 
Specialist Kalpana Chawla and the Columbia crew. Employees from 
NASA also attended. 

One of the parishioners at Holy Trinity was especially touched 
by the tragedy. She had  driven the crewmembers' families to the 
airport for their trip to Florida and Columbia's landing. She 
was to pick them up on their return to Houston.

The daughter of another parishioner at Trinity is the head of 
the recovery effort for NASA, coordinating the various agencies 
efforts. "We are making pastoral calls to parishioners who are 
involved and trying to help them through this," Hamilton said. 

'Embrace them now'

The Rev. Vincent Uher, retired priest, wrote a special verse to 
be added to the hymn "Eternal Father, strong to save," often 
known as the Navy Hymn. It is a favorite among parishioners 
across the diocese. Uher said that he used the passage in Isaiah 
that President Bush quoted and also the poem that President 
Reagan quoted after the Challenger disaster.

"O God who names the starry host

and by whose love not one is lost,

who stretched thy arms wide to the sky

from cross to heav'n so death would die

Oh care for those who traversed space,

Embrace them now who touch thy face."

"Our diocese joins with all Americans as we offer prayers of 
support for the families of the Columbia crewmembers," the Rt. 
Rev. Don Wimberly, bishop coadjutor of the Diocese of Texas, 
said. "The tragedy reminds us of the uncertainty and 
preciousness of life. It shows us that we need to be more 
intentional about living day to day and more loving to those 
close to us," he added.


--Steven Lightfoot is assistant editor of the Texas 
Episcopalian, the newspaper of the Diocese of Texas.

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