25 Years After Columbine, 2 Survivors Share Stories of Divine Protection and Healing Found in the Eucharist

‘EWTN News In Depth’ interviews recount how they approached suffering that fateful day — and ever since — guided by faith.

Frank DeAngelis, principal of Columbine High School in April 1999 when the horrific shooting happened poses with Jenica Thornby who also survived that day and is now Sister Mary Gianna, with the Disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ in Prayer Town, Texas.
Frank DeAngelis, principal of Columbine High School in April 1999 when the horrific shooting happened poses with Jenica Thornby who also survived that day and is now Sister Mary Gianna, with the Disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ in Prayer Town, Texas. (photo: Catherine Hadro / EWTN News In Depth)

The Columbine massacre 25 years ago, when two gunman killed 12 students and one teacher before turning the guns on themselves, marked a cultural shift in our nation. It was the deadliest K-12 shooting in U.S. history, only to eventually be surpassed by the Sandy Hook tragedy in 2012. While evil reared its ugly head in the Colorado suburb of Littleton that day, survivors of the Columbine shooting shared on EWTN News In Depth how they still felt the hand of God present on campus and in their lives.

 

 

A Principal of Faith

The principal of Columbine High School in April 1999 was Frank DeAngelis. The beloved principal, often called “Mr. De” by students, was in his third year of leading the school after working 17 years there as a teacher and coach.

DeAngelis was in his office for a meeting on April 20, when his educational assistant ran in and told him there were reports of gunfire and pipe bombs exploding. The principal recounted how he immediately thought it was a senior prank, as graduation was about a month away. “I could count on two hands the number of fist fights we had at Columbine,” DeAngelis said. 

“But, all of a sudden, I come out of my office — and my worst nightmare becomes a reality, because I encounter a gunman coming towards me.”

That’s when the lifelong Catholic says he began praying silently — and everything slowed down. He thought he was moving calmly, when, in reality, he was running towards the gunman, which consequently shielded him from the bullets. 

After his initial brush with death, DeAngelis turned his attention to helping “his kids,” as he calls them. He knew if he could get the high-school students into the gymnasium, he could then get them safely outside.

“Everything was going as planned,” he recounted. “I got the girls to calm down a little bit; they wanted to know what was going on. I pull on the gymnasium door — and it was locked. All of a sudden, we hear the sounds of the shots getting closer. The gunman is coming around. I had 30 keys on a key ring. I reached into my suit pocket, stuck the first key that came into my hand — and it opened it on the first try, or else I would not be having this conversation.”

 

 

 Divine Prompting 

Sophomore student Jenica Thornby grew up with no faith. While she did not yet know God at the time, on that fateful day, she heard him.

Thornby had a habit of going to the library every day during lunch. It allowed her to study and get her homework done so she could be freed up for sports after school. Not one day went by when she did not go to the library, she said — except on April 20, 1999.

“I was sitting in my art class when, all of a sudden, I had this overwhelming urge to leave school. I just, over in my head, kept repeating, ‘There’s no way I’m staying here. There’s no way that anyone is going to talk me into staying.’”

The friend she always studied with was hesitant to skip their library time, so Thornby promised they would still study – just at a local bagel shop instead. Thornby was adamant: They would drive in her car, which she had just received a week before and drove to school for the first time that day.

“We got in my car — and the moment we turned on the car and started to leave the parking lot and drive away, I looked in my rearview mirror and noticed hundreds and hundreds of schoolmates of mine just running out of the school,” she recalled. 

She and her friend assumed it was a fire drill, but still didn’t understand why the students were running.

Thornby would soon learn of the mass shooting and how she had escaped death — 10 of the 12 students who were killed were shot in the school library.

 

 

‘Jesus, Just Show Me the Way’ 

As these Columbine survivors grappled with the loss of life in their community — and how they were spared — both were also reminded that God protected them for a reason beyond understanding.

Principal DeAngelis says he had his first crisis of faith the evening of the shooting. 

“I was struggling, and I said, ‘God, how could you allow this to happen?’” 

DeAngelis had been a longtime usher at his local Colorado parish; and, following the shooting, a priest friend called him to the church to share what ended up being a formative insight. 

“He said, ‘Frank, you should have died that day. God’s got a plan.’” The priest friend, who would become DeAngelis’ spiritual director, quoted Proverbs 16:9: “The human heart plans the way, but the Lord directs the steps.” 

“He said, ‘You’re going to have to rebuild this community and help others,’” DeAngelis remembered.

That advice prompted DeAngelis to keep moving forward. He says he would spend the first hour of his morning in prayer, leaning on spiritual reading and Scripture for strength. And during his many restless nights, he would go to his local perpetual adoration chapel. 

“I would joke, ‘I think they’re going to start charging me for rent because I spent so much time there.’ … I would be in adoration, just by myself, and have a conversation as we’re having right now, and say, ‘Jesus, just show me the way.’”

DeAngelis shared that he had always wondered if he missed his calling as a Catholic-school teacher, but he came to realize that he could be a witness to Christ through his leadership in his Columbine community. He retired as principal in 2014, after pledging he would remain until all of the students in Columbine feeder schools at the time of the tragedy had graduated. 

Thornby now sees the events of Columbine as the “springboard” for her faith life. Shortly after the shooting, Thornby overheard an adult talking about her, commenting that “God must have a plan for her life.”  She says hearing that was “like putting the pieces together.” But, at the time, Thornby still did not have a relationship with God.

The following year, at 17 years old, a friend of Thornby’s invited her to Mass for the first time. There, she met two youth ministers who started telling her that God passionately loved her. “They also shared with me that God does indeed have a plan for your life, and it started to make sense: Not only did God lead me out of Columbine, he was leading me to himself.”

She continued to attend Mass and then began going to adoration. When it came time to attend college, she enrolled at Franciscan University of Steubenville, where she was immersed in the Catholic faith. And at 19 years old, she became Catholic, receiving the sacraments of baptism, confirmation and the Eucharist at the 2002 Easter vigil. 

A few years later, when she was 25 years old, Thornby recalls a change in how she thought of that harrowing day. “Instead of reflecting on my life — ‘Why did this happen or that happen?’ ‘Why did the shootings happen?’ — I started to pray and ask God, ‘Okay, what would you have me do?’ And, immediately, I had this desire to sell everything I had and follow Jesus. And with that came the words: ‘I just want to be a disciple of Jesus Christ and follow him.’”

Jenica Thornby as a sophomore at Columbine, the year of the deadly shooting. Now she is Sister Mary Gianna.
Jenica Thornby as a sophomore at Columbine, the year of the deadly shooting. Now she is Sister Mary Gianna.(Photo: Courtesy photos)

Today, she is Sister Mary Gianna, with the Disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ in Prayer Town, Texas. 


 

 

Finding God in Suffering 

The now-retired principal of Columbine High School is open about the survivors’ guilt he still grapples with today: “I don’t know why I was saved and others were not, and it’s always hard; but, you know, I look at it from God’s standpoint — and for whatever reason, he saved me that day. And as a result of that, I really do try to do his work to the best of my ability.”

Sister Mary Gianna thought school shootings would end with Columbine. When she looks at the magnitude of school violence today, she says what brings her hope is realizing that, while she can’t control others, she can choose to be guided by God’s voice. 

“I might not be able to fix or change everything, but every day I can respond to God’s grace and calling in my life; and I know he inspires us, each in different ways, and he puts different things on our heart. And so, for me, it’s — ‘Okay, what does God want me to do today?’”

Pope Francis (R) embraces new Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich after he appointed him during an Ordinary Public Consistory for the creation of new cardinals on October 5, 2019 at St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican.

Pope Francis vs. Cardinal Hollerich

EDITORIAL: The Pope’s comments regarding women’s ordination in his interview with CBS put a damper on the movement to alter the Church’s teaching on the priesthood and diaconate.