November 22, 2013

A nation still remembers

50 years later, local Catholics reflect on President Kennedy’s assassination

Robert F. Kennedy, Caroline Kennedy, first lady Jacqueline Kennedy and John F. Kennedy Jr. are seen leaving the U.S. Capitol on Nov. 24, 1963. The following day a funeral Mass was celebrated for U.S. President John F. Kennedy at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington. (CNS photo/Abbie Rowe, National Parks Service, courtesy John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum)

Robert F. Kennedy, Caroline Kennedy, first lady Jacqueline Kennedy and John F. Kennedy Jr. are seen leaving the U.S. Capitol on Nov. 24, 1963. The following day a funeral Mass was celebrated for U.S. President John F. Kennedy at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington. (CNS photo/Abbie Rowe, National Parks Service, courtesy John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum)

By Sean Gallagher

For people who are old enough to remember Nov. 22, 1963, the memories associated with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy are often etched in their minds, still vividly clear 50 years later.

This can be especially true since Kennedy was the first—and still only—Catholic elected to the highest office in the land.

Some of those Catholics who have shared their memories of that tragic day with The Criterion were Catholic grade school or high school students at the time. Another was a young priest.

The following is an edited version of their recollections of Kennedy’s death, the days that followed and the meaning of it in their life of faith. (Related: See The Criterion's coverage of the assassination in 1963)

‘The silence and sadness of our city’

Renee Lange, now a member of St. Barnabas Parish in Indianapolis, was a seventh-grade student in the fall of 1963 at St. Thomas Aquinas School in Dallas.

“I remember it like it was yesterday. It started out as such an exciting day because the president was coming to town,” she wrote. “Everyone was talking about it!

“Later in the morning, we were in the middle of math class when the loud speaker came on with the principal announcing that President Kennedy had been shot coming out of the triple underpass downtown.

“Each student immediately kneeled down next to our desks, and we all prayed the rosary together. I remember afterward, the school was so quiet. Everyone was in shock that this actually happened in our very own city.

“As our parents picked us up from school that day, many went over to the church to pray. I will always remember the silence and sadness of our city on that day.”

‘A cold, rainy November day’

Judy Copeland was a young teacher at Little Flower School in Indianapolis on Nov. 22, 1963. Now living in California, Copeland recalls that momentous day.

“The message came over the public address system from our pastor, Father John Riedlinger, that our president had been shot in a motorcade in Dallas,” she said. “Shortly after, another message revealed the sad news that our president was dead.

“I was working with a small reading group in my classroom when we received the news. We were told to immediately go to the church to pray, and then were dismissed.

“It was a cold, rainy November day, making this tragic news even sadder. There were people standing on the streets in downtown Indianapolis crying outwardly. The city was virtually shut down for several days as we were all home watching the news and the funeral on television.”

‘Like the walls themselves were praying’

Just blocks away from Little Flower School, students’ attention at Father Thomas Scecina Memorial High School in Indianapolis turned from their studies to news from Dallas as the shooting was announced.

One of those students was Rosemary Ritchie, now a member of St. Thomas the Apostle Parish in Fortville.

“I was just settling into my journalism class when Father Harry Hoover came on the public address system and announced that there had been an incident in Dallas, and reports were that the president had been shot,” she said.

“He connected the radio to the public address system for the whole school to listen to the news for several minutes. Then he turned it off for a while, but shortly came back on the public address system and announced that the president had died. He led the school in prayer for the repose of the soul of President Kennedy.

“I remember it sounding like the walls themselves were praying. There was a feeling that the joining of all the voices in prayer was certain to reach heaven. It was comforting at a time when we were completely devastated. There were many tears and stunned faces. It was immediately personal. He was ours! We knew that prayers were the best and only thing that would help.”

Double tragedy

Now a member of St. Christopher Parish in Indianapolis, Maria Wyrick was a sixth-grade student at Our Lady of Lourdes School in Indianapolis at the time of Kennedy’s death. She had a double tragedy to cope with on Nov. 22, 1963.

“I went home from school feeling extremely sad [about the assassination]. I did not know if my dad knew about it yet,” she wrote. “When I got home, I told Dad and he told me that our family had our own tragedy.

“My mom was eight months pregnant and in a coma. I thought that if I told her about President Kennedy, she would wake up and console me.

“We kids went to my Aunt Martha’s home that night, where we prayed for the Kennedys as well as for our family.

“My mother had brain surgery the next day, and gave birth to my little brother, Joe, on Nov. 24, at about the time that [Jack] Ruby shot [Lee Harvey] Oswald. Mom and my little brother survived their ordeal.

“Every year [around this time], I pray for the Kennedys and for my family.”

‘Our world changed that day’

On Nov. 22, 1963, Phyllis Tapscott was 13 and a student at St. Bartholomew School in Columbus.

Now a member of St. Susanna Parish in Plainfield, she recalls her memories of that day 50 years ago.

“When my mother woke me up to get me ready for school on the morning of Nov. 22, 1963, no one had any idea that the world would forever remember that date,” she said. “As a 13-year-old, my world consisted of family, friends, school, riding my bike and playing with my Barbie doll. I knew nothing about politics. I did know that John Kennedy was our first Catholic president, but I was more interested in the fashionable Jackie Kennedy.

“I remember the day like it was yesterday. The day started out like any other day. We always started the day with morning Mass, and then went back to our classroom to continue our daily routine.

“Our day was interrupted when the pastor of our parish came on the school’s intercom system to say that President Kennedy had been shot, but nothing else was known at that time,” she remembered. “We did not know how bad it was. A short time later, the announcement came that he had died.

“There was stunned silence. We were all very young, but we knew that something incredibly big had just happened. Class was suspended for the day. The whole school went back into church for a Mass to pray for our president and for our country.

“Our world changed that day. And for me, even at that young age, I realized that for the rest of my life I would turn to God when I needed help understanding what was happening in the world.”

‘It was heartbreaking’

Father William Munshower was associate pastor of St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Indianapolis on Nov. 22, 1963. Ordained in 1958, Father Munshower was attuned to political and social trends in society.

On Aug. 28, 1963, he had participated in the March on Washington in which Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

At the time of the shooting in Dallas, Father Munshower was in the rectory of his parish.

“Our secretary always had a radio on, and was listening and doing her secretarial work,” he said. “Then she let out a yelp and all at once said that the president had been shot down in Dallas. Well, we quickly turned on the television and were all glued to it.

“It was tragic. We were just hoping against hope that it wasn’t fatal. But rather quickly, it came out that it was fatal. We called people together to the church that night. People turned out in droves,” Father Munshower said.

“We were encouraged and consoled by the sadness of our fellow citizens over the death of a Catholic president. … We were certainly hurt by the fact that the first Catholic president had been gunned down. It was heartbreaking.” †

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