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Life After Columbine

Survivor turned Catholic nun shares “radiant, contagious faith, contentment, and joy” during Kansas visit.

As Western Christendom prepared for the Lenten season, Sister Mary Gianna Thornby traveled from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to share a message of hope with members of the faithful in north central Kansas.

With the blessing of the Catholic Diocese of Salina, Thornby, a survivor of the Columbine High School massacre, who later went on to be a Catholic nun, spent 5 days in Kansas at the invitation of former state legislator, J. Basil Dannebohm.

Since leaving office, Dannebohm has distanced himself from politics entirely. Dismayed by the ever increasing, intense division partisan politics has caused in government, religion, and the private sector, he focuses his attention on promoting understanding through prayer, expression, and dialogue. To advance his mission, Dannebohm hosts several events throughout the year, drawing large numbers of diverse attendees. The events often include live bands and an array of special guests, the occasional celebrity, and noteworthy speakers who share Dannebohm’s vision.

He chose to invite Sister Mary Gianna to Kansas after hearing her story and being inspired by her message.

As a teenager, like many of her peers, Sister Mary Gianna, then known as Jenica Thornby, struggled with some of the most basic questions concerning human life, including what life was about, who she was, and what she was living for. She had a daily high school routine - without fail, she spent her lunch hour studying in the library. One day in late April, however, she was overwhelmed with a strangely intense intuition to forego her daily visit to the library and instead, leave campus. Little did she know that strong intuition would change her life forever.

She was a 16 year old sophomore at Columbine High School on April 20th, 1999, the day two of her schoolmates opened fire killing 12 students, one teacher, and wounding 23 others.  Jenica narrowly escaped being in the library, the center of the tragedy, by trusting that inner prompting that urged her to leave school that day, only minutes before the shooting.

“What made me leave school that day?  I always went to the library,” Thornby wondered. “I remembered being told, ‘God must have a plan for your life!’”

Part of God’s plan, Thornby feels, is to share her story.

She began her visit to Kansas in Beloit, where she spoke to students at St. John’s Catholic School.

“Sister Mary Gianna was truly an inspiration to me. She made me open my eyes to the real world and see that our calling may not be what we want, but in the long run it will be worth it,” said Lizzy Witt, a 10th grade student at St. John’s Catholic School in Beloit, Kansas.

Witt was one of 143 students to hear Thornby’s testimony during her visit to Beloit.

"Having Sr. Mary Gianna at school was a fantastic witness of someone who not only had a traumatic life event and a phenomenal conversion, but someone who consistently welcomes God's will as her own” said religion instructor, Dave DiNuzzo. “Her faith, contentment, and joy radiated from her and was contagious."

Directing the annual Lenten retreat at the Dannebohm Residence was next on Sister Mary Gianna’s agenda. The 3 hour event began with morning prayer, followed by a three-part presentation, combined with scripture and song. Before the retreat concluded with lunch, Sister Mary Gianna prayed over each of the 20 attendees, which proved to be a moving and emotional experience for the entire group.

“It was such an honor to be a part of such an enveloping, enlightening, and engaging experience. Sister Mary Gianna definitely offers a sense of renewed spirit. When she prayed with each individual at the retreat it felt remarkable, as if the message she brought to each of us was so personal and specific. Those words will always stay with me,” said retreat attendee, Amber Klassen.

Fellow retreat attendee, Roger Kaiser, echoed Klassen’s sentiments.

"Sister has a powerful story of God's hand guiding her, even when she did not know why or what it was,” said Kaiser. “After Sister prayed over us, I felt that God let me know that in every step along our journey, He is there with me, helping, guiding, holding my hand and even carrying me. Where He wants me today, might not be where he wants me tomorrow.”

Saturday evening, Dannebohm hosted a formal reception to officially welcome Sister Mary Gianna to Kansas. Salina Mayor, Karl Ryan, was on hand to greet Thornby. Like others, the mayor was touched by her story.

“It’s rare that you meet someone who exudes such peace, harmony and conviction. Sister Mary Gianna’s story is a compelling example of how God speaks to us in our life to make us his instrument as we make our way to him,” said Mayor Ryan. “I was profoundly moved by our meeting and grateful to know her example in my life. She speaks for all the survivors at Columbine and I’m sure her remarkable story has inspired all whose lives she was able to touch during her visit here.”

During her visit, Thornby also shared her story with 201 students at Sacred Heart JR/SR High School in Salina.

react-text: 1090 “Sister Mary Gianna brings such a peaceful presence to each person she speaks to,” said Liz Carney, a religion instructor at Sacred Heart JR/SR High School. “Her story is such a beautiful witness to what it means to be a joyful follower of Christ and what can happen when we say yes to the promptings of the Holy Spirit.”

As her visit came to a close, Sister Mary Gianna met with members of the media, including 43 year broadcast veteran Clarke Sanders. Sanders recorded an interview with her that lasted about 30 minutes. It was edited into two parts He played it on “The Clarke Sanders Show” on News Radio 1150 KSAL (a secular station that has been on the air over 80 years) during afternoon drive time on Monday and Tuesday, February 12th and 13th.

“Sister Mary Gianna has such a riveting story”, Sanders said. “I learned many details about the Columbine shooting that I never knew prior to hearing her story and conducting the interview. My biggest takeaway was seeing how God can work through a person even before that person has any concept of who God is.” 

Sister Mary Gianna Thornby is a member of The Disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ, a Franciscan contemplative community of women with evangelistic apostolates. Based out of Prayertown, Texas, the sisters seek to follow in the footsteps of Jesus the Lord through the profession of the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. They minister to the spiritual needs of people of all ages world-wide through retreats, vacation bible schools, door to door evangelization, parish missions, foreign missions, prayer ministry, spiritual direction and ministry to charismatic prayer groups. Thornby serves as assistant to the administrator of The Ark and the Dove Retreat Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a ministry partner of the Disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ.

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