Columbine principal helped rebuild community through Catholic faith

“Mr. De” sat wide awake that night in his brother’s house. He was in disbelief at what had occurred. And, as a cradle Catholic, for the first time in his life, he questioned his faith: “God, how could you let this happen? These poor kids!”

Frank DeAngelis, the principal of Columbine High School the year of the shooting, didn’t know that in the wake of such tragedy, God would call him to stay in the very place that had deeply marked him in order to rebuild a hurting community.

In his newly-released book They Call Me “Mr. De,DeAngelis tells the story of Columbine’s heart, resilience and recovery.

He spoke with the Denver Catholic about his faith-filled experience and his new book.

“A lot of this book is about my faith and how it allowed me to recover and to do what I continue to do,” he said.

DeAngelis remembers April 20, 1999, vividly — his third year as principal.

“I was in my office that day getting ready to go to lunch duty… I was talking to a teacher [when] my secretary showed up at the door — I can remember her so vividly — and said, ‘Frank, there is a reported gunfire!’” he recalled.

He was in disbelief.

“This can’t be happening. I’ve been part of this school. It’s a fantastic school [with] a lot of parental support, great kids,” he thought. “And when I ran out of my office, my worst nightmare became a reality: I saw a gunman that was coming towards me, and everything just seemed to slow down.”

Instead of fleeing, he ran toward the gunfire.

“People have asked me, ‘Why would you do that?’ And the reason I did it is that I had some of my kids in danger. They were coming from a class… and they were going to be in the middle of the gunfire. And I ran down there to protect them,” he said.

The former principal found himself leading a group of 25 to 30 students to the gymnasium, where they could lock the doors from within, with the gunman approaching.

He pulled on the gymnasium door — it was locked.

“That’s when I really believe miracles started happening,” DeAngelis recalled.

He reached into his pocket, pulled out a key ring with about 30 keys, introduced a random key, and opened the door on the first try.

“I tried [to replicate] that for 15 years later, but never could” he said.

But the story was just beginning, and he had to process everything that had happened on that day: the twelve students and teacher that had died, the dozens who were wounded.

“It was two days later that my life changed, and I’m eternally grateful,” DeAngelis said.

Father Ken Leone, who was pastor of St. Frances Cabrini Parish, DeAngelis’ home parish, invited him to a candlelight vigil for the victims. DeAngelis hesitated; he was overwhelmed. Father Leone insisted, and the school principal finally accepted.

“[Father Ken] calls me up on the altar and brings some of the students who were part of the youth group and they came over and extended their hands over me and prayed for me,” he said. “And I felt something, the Holy Spirit, descend upon me. Then Father Ken whispered in my ear, ‘Frank, you should’ve died that day, but God saved you and he’s got a plan: Now you need to rebuild that community… Frank, it’s going to be a tough journey, but you never have to travel that journey alone.’

“And the thing that really turned it around for me is that he said, ‘Frank, you’ve got to believe this: You’ve got to live by faith and not by sight.’”

Father Leone accompanied him in his process of healing and so did Father Sean McGrath, when he became pastor of the parish.

“Their help, along with the help of a [Catholic] counselor, were the reasons why I was able to heal,” he assured. “I got counseling along with spiritual support, and that’s the message I share with communities that experience similar tragedies about having that support system in place.”

DeAngelis would remain the principal of Columbine High School for another 15 years, with the conviction that God had given him the mission to help students and the community heal.

He currently serves as a consultant for safety and emergency management for the Jeffco School District and speaks nationally and internationally.

“Hopefully people don’t have to go through a ‘Columbine,’ but there is an assurance we’re going to go through tough times in our lives,” he concluded. “And the piece of advice that I give is you never have to travel that journey alone.

“For me, the journey was a tough journey, but I knew my faith was so important to me that I had that support and belief that God was there to help me.”

COMING UP: Five Hispanic-American saints perhaps you didn’t know

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The American continent has had its share of saints in the last five centuries. People will find St. Juan Diego, St. Rose of Lima or St. Martin de Porres among the saints who enjoy greater popular devotion. Yet September, named Hispanic Heritage Month, invites a deeper reflection on the lives of lesser-known saints who have deeply impacted different Latin-American countries through their Catholic faith and work, and whose example has the power to impact people anywhere around the world. Here are just a few perhaps you didn’t know.

St. Toribio de Mogrovejo
1538-1606
Peru

Born in Valladolid, Spain, Toribio was a pious young man and an outstanding law student. As a professor, his great reputation reached the ears of King Philip II, who eventually nominated him for the vacant Archdiocese of Lima, Peru, even though Toribio was not even a priest. The Pope accepted the king’s request despite the future saint’s protests. So, before the formal announcement, he was ordained a priest, and a few months later, a bishop. He walked across his archdiocese evangelizing the natives and is said to have baptized nearly half a million people, including St. Rose of Lima and St. Martin de Porres. He learned the local dialects, produced a trilingual catechism, fought for the rights of the natives, and made evangelization a major theme of his episcopacy. Moreover, he worked devotedly for an archdiocesan reform after realizing that diocesan priests were involved in impurities and scandals. He predicted the date and hour of his death and is buried in the cathedral of Lima, Peru.

St. Mariana of Jesus Paredes
1618-1645
Ecuador

St. Mariana was born in Quito, modern-day Ecuador, and not only became the country’s first saint, but was also declared a national heroine by the Republic of Ecuador. As a little girl, Mariana showed a profound love for God and practiced long hours of prayer and mortification. She tried joining a religious order on two occasions, but various circumstances would not permit it. This led Mariana to realize that God was calling her to holiness in the world. She built a room next to her sister’s house and devoted herself to prayer and penance, living miraculously only off the Eucharist. She was known to possess the gifts of counsel and prophecy. In 1645, earthquakes and epidemics broke out in Quito, and she offered her life and sufferings for their end. They stopped after she made her offering. On the day of her death, a lily is said to have bloomed from the blood that was drawn out and poured in a flowerpot, earning her the title of “The Lily of Quito.”

St. Theresa of Los Andes
1900-1920
Chile

St. Theresa of Jesus of Los Andes was Chile’s first saint and the first Discalced Carmelite to be canonized outside of Europe. Born as Juana, the future saint was known to struggle with her temperament as a child. She was proud, selfish and stubborn. She became deeply attracted to God at the age six, and her extraordinary intelligence allowed her to understand the seriousness of receiving First Communion. Juana changed her life and became a completely different person by the age of 10, practicing mortification and deep prayer. At age 14, she decided to become a Discalced Carmelite and received the name of Theresa of Jesus. Deeply in love with Christ, the young and humble religious told her confessor that Jesus told her she would die soon, something she accepted with joy and faith. Shortly thereafter, Theresa contracted typhus and died at the age of 19. Although she was 6 months short of finishing her novitiate, she was able to profess vows “in danger of death.” Around 100,000 pilgrims visit her shrine in Los Andes annually.

St. Laura Montoya
1874-1949
Colombia

After Laura’s father died in war when she was only a child, she was forced to live with different family members in a state of poverty. This reality kept her from receiving formal education during her childhood. What no one expected is that one day she would become Colombia’s first saint. Her aunt enrolled her in a school at the age of 16, so she would become a teacher and make a living for herself. She learned quickly and became a great writer, educator and leader. She was a pious woman and wished to devote herself to the evangelization of the natives. As she prepared to write Pope Pius X for help, she received the pope’s new Encyclical Lacrymabili Statu, on the deplorable condition of Indians in America. Laura saw it as a confirmation from God and founded the Missionaries of the Immaculate Heart and St. Catherine of Siena, working for the evangelization of natives and fighting or their behalf to be seen as children of God.

St. Manuel Morales
1898-1926
Mexico

Manuel was a layman and one of many martyrs from Mexico’s Cristero War in the 1920s. He joined the seminary as a teen but had to abandon this dream in order to support his family financially. He became a baker, married and had three children. This change, however, did not prevent him from bearing witness to the faith publicly. He became the president of the National League for the Defense of Religious Liberty, which was being threatened by the administration of President Plutarco Elías Calles. Morales and two other leaders from the organization were taken prisoners as they discussed how to free a friend priest from imprisonment through legal means. They were beaten, tortured and then killed for not renouncing to their faith. Before the firing squad, the priest begged the soldiers to forgive Morales because he had a family. Morales responded, “I am dying for God, and God will take care of my children.” His last words were, “Long live Christ the King and Our Lady of Guadalupe!”