LITTLETON, Colo. — April 20 marks the fifth anniversary of the nation's deadliest school shooting — and the Catholic response that followed it. The violence looked like a student prank when it began. It lasted only 16 minutes. But when it was over, 14 students and one teacher were dead and 21 were wounded at Columbine High School near Littleton, Colo.
Register readers at the time were greeted with the headline “Faith and Heroism Transform Tragedy.” Five years later, we revisted Littleton to see what has happened to the revival we reported on then.
St. Frances Cabrini and Light of the World, two Catholic parishes near Columbine, became heavily involved when the crisis hit.
On April 22, 1999, more than 1,200 people gathered for a prayer service at St. Frances Cabrini. The Register reported how they erupted into cheers and applause as Father Kenneth Leone, pastor, told the story of the near-martyrdom of Valerie Schnurr, an 18-year-old senior.
Schnurr was in the library at Columbine when two heavily armed students entered and opened fire. She was hit by a shotgun blast fired at point-blank range. As her assailant stood over her, she began to pray.
“Do you believe in God?” asked the young man, a member of a neo-Nazi group known as the trench coat mafia.
Schnurr replied, “Yes, I do.”
The Register also quoted Jim Beckman of Life Teen. “This is a spiritual problem,” he told students gathered at St. Francis Cabrini.
“There is a spiritual vacuum in our lives, in our society, in our world. And if you don't believe it, then you are missing the point. We have got to bring Jesus Christ back into our nation,” he shouted to wild applause from the assembly.
Five years, later Father Leone calls the event and its consequences almost overwhelming, with “fallout” still evident now. He stressed the importance of steadfast parish involvement of individuals and family members in facilitating healthy coping mechanisms.
And five years later, the Cabrini chapter of Life Teen is still thriving.
Beckman says he thinks the movie The Passion of the Christ coincides well with the fifth anniversary in giving an opportunity to contemplate God's sacrificial love and to consider it as a model for life. Beckman has been asked to give a pastoral message at an ecumenical memorial service following a remembrance ceremony April 20.
Father Jerry Rohr is pastor at Light of the World. Prior to the tragedy, the parish had already been designated as Jefferson County Mental Health's task-force headquarters in an emergency. Beginning on the evening of the crisis, it offered its grounds as a haven.
Father Rohr said the large suburban high school, one of three on the west side of the Denver metropolitan area, dealt with the violence issue with statements about zero tolerance of bullying and other awareness measures. But he still believes parents must make greater efforts to spend more quality time with offspring.
Up From Tragedy
The efforts made in the wake of the tragedy have borne fruit five years later in the students who survived Columbine.
Mike Sheehan, a Creighton University senior, was a Columbine junior during the rampage but got away unscathed. He was elected student body president in the weeks following and served as a liaison between the student body, the media and school administration.
His experience has been instrumental in his decision to consider a master's degree in youth ministry at the Omaha, Neb., Jesuit university.
In his speaking engagements nationwide, the former Cabrini parishioner has concluded that while there is increased attention to teen violence, there has been little worthwhile action to prevent kindred shootings.
“Resolution is going to come from understanding the psychology behind troubled youths and using that information before they are completely lost,” he said.
He believes various “quick fixes” that have been used so far only “offer a false sense of security.”
Frank DeAngelis, Columbine principal since 1996 and a Cabrini parishioner, said he was bolstered by his faith community during Columbine's dark times.
Five years ago, the Register quoted him as saying, “I feel so sorry and almost want to apologize for all the grief that has descended on our community. But I realize that the good Lord would not give us anything that we could not handle. I'm not sure why things happen. But they happen for a reason — this has unified our community and has unified our school. I have always bragged about how great Columbine High School is, and it is still a great high school.”
Today, he is committed to tackling teen violence. He says the job requires a “societal team effort, with every entity represented” — families, schools, communities, law-enforcement agencies and youth. Today's youth have so many options that they need reliable safeguards to better stay out of harm's way.
A visitor seeing the high school today, next to spacious Clement Park and in view of the Rocky Mountain foothills, might not be able to imagine what happened there on April 20, 1999. Only discreet remembrances can be found in the facility, including ceramic commemorative tiles.
However the legacy of the day evolves, one of its most visible and enduring symbols is a license plate commemorating the victims. It features a vibrant columbine, the state flower, shaped like a cluster of doves, and the words “Respect Life.”
“If we're not involved actively and lovingly in each other's lives, we create a world of anger and fear and ultimately violence,” Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput said. “If we don't give our children hope through an example of trusting in God and each other, we give them despair instead — and the result is Columbine and other tragedies like it.”
Mary E. Manley writes from Littleton, Colorado.
- April 18-24, 2004