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St. Martin's Episcopal Church shines during the Barbara Bush funeral

St. Martin's Episcopal Church shines during the Barbara Bush funeral
Former First Lady longtime communicant member of large Houston parish

By Mary Ann Mueller
VOL Special Correspondent
April 23, 2018

HOUSTON, TEXAS -- Former First Lady Barbara Bush was laid to rest Saturday (April 21) as all eyes were drawn to St. Martin's Episcopal Church on Sage Road in Texas' most populous city.

Houston's largest Episcopal parish -- in fact America's largest Episcopal congregation with nearly 9,000 members -- was front and center in the media's live television and Internet coverage surrounding Mrs. Bush's by-invitation-only Celebration-of-Life liturgical service.

The church itself is a beautiful modern Gothic-style, state-of-the-art edifice with twin towers soaring 188 feet into the cloudy and rainy Texas sky. The 27,630 square foot church seats 1,500 and every pew was taken with stand alone chairs being set up in front for the Bush family on the Epistle side of the church. First Lady Melania Trump and former First Ladies Michele Obama and Hillary Clinton, escorted by their ex-president husbands Barrack Obama and Bill Clinton, respectively; and former Second Ladies Lynne Cheney, and Marylin Quayle, accompanied by their former vice-presidential husbands Dick Cheney and Dan Quayle were seated on the Gospel side of the expansive Houston Episcopal church.

Seated behind them were several former presidential daughters: Caroline Kennedy, Lynda Johnson, Luci Johnson, Tricia Nixon, Susan Ford and Chelsea Clinton.

Former First Lady Rosalyn Carter was unable to attend as she is recovering from recent surgery. At 90, she is now the oldest living First Lady, a title Mrs. Carter acquired when Mrs. Bush died on April 17 at the age of 92. Former president Jimmy Carter was travelling overseas and was also unable to attend the Texas funeral service.

Mrs. Bush was Second Lady during the 1980s presidential administration of Ronald Reagan. Her grieving widower, former president George W.H. Bush, and Texas Governor Greg Abbot had their own seating. The two men are both confined to a wheelchair.

Former president George W. Bush and his First Lady Laura are members of the immediate Bush family and were seated with the rest of the Bush clan. In all, there were four former presidents present: Bush-41; Bush-43, Clinton and Obama; four First Ladies -- Mrs. Trump, Mrs. Obama, Mrs. Bush-43, Mrs. Clinton; two vice-presidents -- Dick Cheney and Dan Quayle and their Second Ladies, Mrs. Cheney and Mrs. Quayle.

In addition, the remaining Bush children -- Jeb, Neil, Marvin, and Dorothy -- were all in attendance along with their spouses and children -- the Bush grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Throughout the hour and a half service, Dorothy kept a hand on her father's back, gently rubbing it to bring him comfort during an emotionally stressful event.

One granddaughter, Lauren Bush, was unable to attend her "Gannie's" funeral. She presented a great-great grandson to the growing Bush clan. Little Max Walker Bush was born on Thursday (April 19), two days after his great-great grandmother died.

Gov. Abbot was not the only governor to attend the service. Mrs. Bush's own son, Jeb Bush, is the former governor of Florida. He gave one of the three eulogies for his mother. Other former governors in attendance included Michigan Governor John Engler, Maine Governor Jock McKernan, New Hampshire Governor John Sununu and Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson.

From oilman to president

Mrs. Bush's funeral was a political Who's Who. Many mourners became friends with the Bushes during George-the-Elder's multifaceted political career. He first started out as a Navy pilot. It was as a young Naval officer in 1941 at a Christmas dance, that 18-year-old Bush-41 met 16-year-old Barbara Pierce. It was love at first sight and that young romance turned into marriage four years later. That union withstood the test of time through more than 72 years of marriage, the birth of six children, the loss to death of a toddler, setting up housekeeping in 29 different locations, a successful business career, the rigors of politicking -- first on the local level, then state wide and eventually nationally.

The Bushes first moved to Houston from oil-rich west Texas in the late 1950s and they joined St. Martin's Episcopal Church during its initial growth years.

Mrs. Bush said that when they started going to St. Martin's, it had only 250 members. They are one of the parish's early members and have been faithful to the Houston parish for six decades. It was to Houston that the Bushes eventually retired after decades of political life and globe trotting.

Bush-41 first became president of the Harris County Republican Party, which then launched him into Texas politics. In 1966, he was elected to the US House of Representative as the first Republican from Texas' 7th District which covers a western portion of Houston. Congress then led Bush-41 to the United Nations where he was the US Ambassador. Then he became the chair of the Republican National Committee, which led to his becoming Chief of the US Liaison Office to the People's Republic of China. Next step up the political ladder was director of the Central Intelligence Agency and then vice-president under Ronald Reagan, which was the stepping stone to the presidency in 1989.

All the while, Barbara Bush kept the home fires burning, raising the children and was active in her church. The Bushes' home church remained in Houston and it was to St. Martin's they returned to when they retired.

Mrs. Bush helped to needle point the church's Communion rail kneelers. She would take the fabric with her to their summer home in Kennebunkport, Maine and work on her assigned kneeler up there.

As an Episcopal congregation in Houston, St. Martin's is rather young. Its founding does not go back to colonial days or even to the days of the Texas Republic (1836-1846). That singular honor goes to Houston's Christ Church Cathedral, which was founded in 1839. St. Martin's was founded in 1952 to help accommodate the spiritual needs of the exploding Baby Boom generation.

George and Barbara Bush added six new souls to that generation: George W. (1946); Robin (1949-1953); Jeb (1953); Neil (1955); Marvin (1956); and Dorothy (1959). Two of their sons, George W. and Jeb became governors in Texas and Florida, respectively. George W. even followed his father into the White House to become President Bush-43.

Barbara Bush is the only first lady to see her son become president during her lifetime and to welcome her own daughter-in-law (Laura Bush) in the unique "Presidents' Wives' Club."

As wife of John Adams, Abigail Adams became the second First Lady of the United States, but before that she was the first Second Lady of the United States when John Adams was the vice president under George Washington. Martha Washington is usually referred to as Lady Washington, although historically she is the nation's first First Lady.

Mrs. Adams, like Mrs. Bush-41, also birthed six children, losing a daughter to death at birth. Her firstborn son, John Quincy, became the sixth president of the growing nation in 1825. However, Mrs. Adams died of typhoid fever in 1818 and never witnessed her son advance to the presidency.

The term "First Lady" was first coined in 1849 by President Zachary Taylor during his eulogy of Dolley Madison at her funeral. At least 53 women have worn that special title, although not all have been presidential wives. Some have been non-spousal female relatives -- niece, daughter-in-law, sister -- stepping in as White House hostess for a widower or bachelor president; thus they are considered the "acting First Lady."

Even though Mrs. Bush was buried next to her daughter Robin at the George Bush Presidential Library on the campus of A&M University in College Station, 95 miles from the Houston church, it was St. Martin's which became the center of the weekend funeral activity.

St. Martin's, the modern Gothic church

St. Martin's was founded in early September 1952 by the Rev. Thomas Bagby, with 125 attending the first worship service on Post Oak Road. Within four months, the young church plant had already doubled in size and became a self-sustaining parish in January 1953. Growth continued and in 1954, the first worship space was built on Sage Road. Five years later, a new sanctuary was built to accommodate Houston's rapid post war Episcopal growth. On the church's tenth anniversary in 1962, the congregation was church home to nearly 3,000 souls, making it a megachurch -- having more than 2,000 who attend Sunday services.

In 1983, Fr. Bagby retired and the Rev. Claude Payne became the parish's second rector. It was during Fr. Payne's rectorship that George H.W. Bush went from being the Vice President of the United States (1981-1989) to becoming the President of the United States (1989-1993). In 1993, Fr. Payne was plucked to become the bishop coadjutor for the Episcopal Diocese of Texas. Two years later he became the VII Bishop of Texas. Bishop Payne returned to St. Martin's for his former parishioner's funeral. He was joined by the Diocese of Texas' current bishop, Andrew Doyle (IX Texas), who gave the benediction.

In 2009, Bishop Doyle was even consecrated bishop and enthroned at St. Martin's, because by that time it was the largest Episcopal church in the Houston-based Diocese of Texas. With a 1,500 seating capacity, St. Martin's was big enough to accommodate a large crowd.

The Rev. Laurence Gipson followed Fr. Payne to become St. Martin's third rector in 1994. Under Fr. Gipson's leadership, St. Martin's continued to grow. By its 50th anniversary as a parish, St. Martin's had more than 7,000 members and was being touted as one of the largest Episcopal congregations in the United States. It was also during Fr. Gipson's tenure that the new $42 million sanctuary was built large enough to accommodate 1,500 worshippers, making it one of the largest liturgical churches in Houston, second only to Sacred Heart Catholic Cathedral, which is 32,000 square feet and can seat 1,820. The post modern Catholic cathedral was put up with a $49 million price tag and was dedicated in 2008.

Building a modern Gothic-style church in the 21st century presented some unique problems for Jackson & Ryan Architects, Matrix Structural Engineers, Tolunay-Wong Geotechnical Engineers and Tellspen Builders, the contractors -- all Houston firms. Once their work was complete, the church won several architectural, engineering and construction awards.

St. Martin's exterior is patterned after St. Elizabeth Church in Marburg, Germany, onetime burial site of St. Elizabeth of Hungry. The 13th century church was started in 1235 but was not totally finished until 1340. Interiorly, St. Martin's is modeled after the Cathedral Church of Our Lady of Chartes in France. For being a medieval church, the bulk of Chartes cathedral was completed in record time, 26 years, from 1194-1220, with the final finishing touches put on by 1260.

St. Martin's architects were faced with creating a cruciform church with buttresses, towers and spires, transcripts, ogives, an apse, rood screen, rose window, vaulting ceilings, pillars and arches, three dozen stained glass windows in 485 sections, as well as building it to withstand hurricane winds while using modern materials -- brick, steel and state-of-the-art technology. The challenge was to make the Houston church look like a modern version of an 800-year-old European worship edifice without taking a century or more to build. St. Martin's was built in 15 months and ready for Easter Sunday services in 2004.

But it was not only the St. Martin's Gothic curb appeal, but Mrs. Bush's funeral rites which helped to make St. Martin's shine and the media sit up and take notice. Her Celebration-of-Life service was based simply on the Liturgy of the Word in the Rite I Burial Office. There was not even the Service of Holy Communion celebrated, even though there were a dozen priests and two bishops in attendance.

Her casket was draped with a gold and ivory brocade pall which matched the altar frontal. The priests were garbed in simple albs with ivory and gold stoles matching the altar hanging and casket pall. Since it is still in the Easter season, the pulpit had a gold brocade hanging and narrow gold paraments adorned the lectern. The two bishops wore the familiar scarlet chimere and white rochet. Bishop Doyle clutched his crozier.

There was no shaman preparing the altar with an eagle's feather, there were no spinning, twirling and wildly gyrating liturgical dancers prancing down the aisle, there were no African drums beating nor clashing cymbals or the blowing of a ram's horn, there was not an Iman, or Buddhist, or Hindu reading from the Koran, the Shastras, the Bhagavad Gita or even the Book of Mormon from the gold parament-draped lectern.

The Scripture readings were familiar -- the Old Testament reading was Ecclesiastes 3:1-14; the Canticle was about the "Proverbs Woman" as described in Proverbs 31:10-31 (read in verses by six of the Bush granddaughters); the Epistle reading was II Corinthians 4:16-5:9; and the Gospel came from John 6:37-40.

Quiet, prayerful, simplistic dignity

The late First Lady's service was "elegant in its simplicity" ... "quiet" ... "prayerful" ... "graceful" ... "majestic" ... "dignified" ... "respectful" ... "memorable" ... "powerful" ... All words used by the secular media in describing Mrs. Bush's funeral at St. Martin's Episcopal Church in Houston. Words you rarely hear the press use nowadays when reporting on an Episcopal Church event. Barbara Bush's Episcopal burial service was televised live over the networks and streamed on the Internet.

In fact, the media was respectful. Reporters honored the Bush Family request not to provide a running commentary during the live broadcast of the Episcopal funeral service to allow for the silences, prayers and music to be heard unimpeded. There were also no television helicopters buzzing the church nor following the funeral cortege to College Station.

Mrs. Bush was eulogized by Pulitzer Prize-winning Presidential Historian Jon Meacham, himself an Episcopalian; close personal friend Susan Baker, wife of former Reagan and Bush administrations' Chief of Staff James Baker and her second son Jeb.

The three eulogizers told personal antidotes about Mrs. Bush, which brought both laugher and tears at the many and varied fond memories

"The last time I was with her, I asked her about dying. Was she ready to go? Was she sad?" Jeb told the gathering. "Without missing a beat, she said: 'Jeb, I believe in Jesus and He is my Saviour. I don't want to leave your Dad, but I know I will be in a beautiful place'."

"Mom, we look forward to being with you and Robin and all of God's children," the former Florida governor concluded. "We love you."

Robin was the Bushes' first daughter who died in 1953 at the age of three from leukemia. It is said that it was the stress of little Robin's illness, suffering and death that turned Mrs. Bush's hair prematurely white.

In a playful nod to his wife's dedication to reading and literacy, the 93-year-old Bush-41 wore black socks showing stacks of colorful books. A final loving tribute to his beloved bride of 72 years.

In 2006, after building the modern Gothic church, Fr. Gipson retired as rector from St. Martins. He left The Episcopal Church and became Roman Catholic, eventually landing in the Houston-based Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter. He was followed as St. Martin's rector by the Rev. Russell J. Levenson, Jr., who became the Bushes' pastor, priest, close personal friend and cherished confidant.

Fr. Levenson received his Master's in Divinity from Virginia Theological Seminary and finished his Doctor of Ministry at Beeson Divinity School. He came to St. Martin's in 2007 as the church's forth rector.

As the Bush Family's pastor and priest, Fr. Levenson ministered to the dying First Lady as she crept closer to the edge of time, preparing to step over into eternity. In the hours before her death, he visited her and led the family in the Episcopal Prayers for the Dying.

Fr. Levenson's prayers were answered. Telling the Houston Chronicle, he said that Mrs. Bush had a "beautiful, peaceful, gentle death," and that she was "physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually ready to leave this life for the next."

Houstonians came

After Mrs. Bush's death, the priest opened his church so that local Houstonians could pay their final respects to her. St. Martin's was open from noon until midnight on Friday. Officials expected about 5,000 people would make it to the church, but by the time St. Martin's doors were shut, more than 6,200 people visited the person who the Houston media was calling "The Nation's First Grandmother." They came even in the dark; they came even if they had to first go to Second Baptist Church to go through tight security; they came even if they had to be bussed to and from St. Martin's. They came ... many wearing blue -- Mrs. Bush's favorite color, and pearls -- Mrs. Bush's signature look, to honor her in their small way.

They came ... some passed by her coffin slowly. They came ... some knelt to pray dropping on their knees on the Communion rail kneelers Mrs. Bush had helped to needlepoint. They came ... some stood in reverence and awe as they looked upon the flower topped silvertone casket perched on a black-draped dais in front of the church's altar, which was simply covered with a white fair linen. They came ... some even met President Bush-41 who also came to be near his wife for just a little bit longer. All the while, Secret Servicemen stood in silent vigil, unwilling to leave their charge, even in death. Her Secret Service detail even travelled with her in the hearse to College Station, leaving her side only after she was interred at the President Bush Presidential Library.

On Saturday morning, as 1,500 invited mourners started to fill up St. Martin's, Fr. Levenson gathered the First Families -- all 34 Bushes present, Mrs. Trump, the Obamas, the Clintons, the Cheneys and the Quayles -- for a private prayer before the start of the Barbara Bush's funeral.

The funeral started on time. Not a minute late. The great church was hushed as the organ peeled its first notes. The time had come to say good bye to the wife ... the mother ... the grandmother "Gannie" ... a friend ... a neighbor ... an Houstonian ... a First Lady.

"Despite this distinguished gathering today, I have to tell you, I think there are only two who can fill this place the way it is filled today," Fr. Levenson prefaced to his captive 1,500 member congregation. "The first is Jesus Christ; the second is Barbara Bush."

Mrs. Bush felt her final service should be held in a smaller side chapel, thinking that not many would show up to fill a larger worship space. But invitations had to be issued to keep the numbers down or even St. Martin's would not have been able to accommodate the crowd. In all, 6,231 Texans, Houstonians and others filed past her coffin during her silent 12-hour laying-in-repose at the church on Friday.

"We've done a great deal of evangelism from my church today, thank you," the rector noted. "And I mean that sincerely."

"Jesus was Barbara's pathway to God," the priest explained in his eulogy of his friend and parishioner Barb. "We find Barbara's Jesus in the Gospel lesson (John 6:37-40). Her Jesus offers the hope that when life here comes to its natural close is changed, not ended."

"Can we imagine this day? A reunion with her parents -- with your parents, Sir," the priest says directly addressing Bush-41. "... and with your dear Robin, together again."

The rector asked the congregation to leave his church not grieving but rejoicing while singing "Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee." Other familiar Episcopal tunes used during the service were "Praise the Lord, the Almighty, the King of Creation" as the processional hymn and "Amazing Grace" as the Gradual hymn. All the congregational hymns are found in the 1984 Hymnal.

Other music included "Nearer, My God, to Thee" and "My Country 'Tis of Thee" were used as prelude anthems. The solo anthem was "In the Garden" and "The Holy City" was sung as St. Martin's Adult Choir anthem under the direction of Kevin Riehle.

Accompanying organ music was provided by St. Martin's massive Gloria Dei 69-voice pipe organ with its 80 ranks. Its 4,649 pipes frame the Apostles' rose window. The organ was played by David Henning, St. Martin's organ master.

"Barbara would want us to celebrate her great new chapter," he explained. "She has been raised to new life for in this story you never turn the page and see the words 'The End." Barbara Bush's story has just begun again, and the best is yet to come as she lives in that Holy City of God."

Fr. Levenson may have been Mrs. Bush's priest and pastor in Houston, but the Rev. Peter Cheney was her priest and pastor in Maine. He is the chaplain at St. Anne's Episcopal Church, a summer chapel in Kennebunkport, a tourist haven along the Atlantic coastline, a place where the Bushes visited often and have a summer home.

Fr. Cheney came to Houston to be a part of Mrs. Bush's obsequies. He led the Prayers of the People and accompanied Fr. Levenson to College Station for the former First Lady's committal service.

After the service was over, Mrs. Bush left St. Martin's for the final time as her grandsons bore her coffin to the hearse. Outside St. Martin's, four flags were lowered to half-mast -- the American flag, the Texas flag, the Episcopal flag, and the Anglican Compass Rose flag.

As the hearse drove away, Houston police officers snapped to attention and saluted their fellow Houstonian who was leaving their city on her final leg to her burial spot. The streets were lined with people, waiting in the light drizzle, waving American flags and snapping pictures as the Bush Family procession slowly passed by.

Mary Ann Mueller is a journalist living in Texas. She is a regular contributor to VirtueOnline

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