Friday, September 18, 2015

The Flight 93 Memorial Chapel

This is a continuation from last week's Remembering 9/11. This article focuses on the Flight 93 Memorial Chapel near Shanksville, PA.

One month after the crash of Flight 93 near Shanksville, PA, Rev. Alphonse Mascherino, a former priest of the Catholic Church, was looking for a place to build a spiritual memorial to the fallen heroes. He chose Mizpah Lutheran Church, located about 4 miles from the crash site.

Mom's mother and father's gravestone
in the Mizpah Lutheran Church Cemetery.
I have childhood memories of being in the car as Dad drove past the old church, slowing down to get a good look, sometimes stopping to walk around the cemetery. Though we had family five or six miles from the church, to the best of my knowledge it wasn't really on our way to anywhere. Mom and Dad liked to take the scenic route. Mom often talked about how her grandmother would walk a couple of miles every Sunday to attend church there. The accompanying cemetery is the final resting place of many of mom's family. Her parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, a brother. The names are like an honor roll of my family heritage - the Mostollers, Stutzmans, and of course, Fiegs.

The church opened in 1902 and served a Lutheran congregation for 70 years. Then it was used as a seed warehouse. In recent years it had stood vacant. Vacant and waiting. Waiting for a new sacred purpose.

When news went around that the old church was going to be remodeled into a memorial chapel, we were thrilled. I love history and love to see old buildings with a story to tell repurposed, rather than demolished. Rev. Mascherino worked on the chapel himself, sometimes with the assistance of Boy Scouts or other volunteers. He nickel and dimed it with his own money until donations started coming in.

It was several months before Mom and I were able to visit the chapel, and the first time we met Rev. Mascherino he was in blue jeans and a work shirt. He was charming, charismatic and passionate about the work he was doing. And he loved Mom. No matter how many months went by between visits, he always remembered her and greeted her warmly, usually with a “How are you doing, Sweetheart?” I used to tease her about her “boyfriend.”

His vision was for a non-denominational place where people could come and find spiritual solace as they honored the lives of the 40 people who sacrificed so much. As the one year anniversary of 9/11 drew close, he wasn't sure he would have the chapel ready. Word of his work at the church spread, and people and businesses throughout Western Pennsylvania came together to raise "Thunder Bell" into its tower and to finish the remodel so the public could be received. (There used to be a website that told the many stories associated with the bell, the murals inside the chapel and so many other ways people became involved. I haven't visited that site in many years, and haven't been able to find it. I can only guess that without Rev. Mascherino it was not maintained.)

This was the Reverend's dream. He knew the National Memorial at the crash site would take years to complete. In fact, it took a few years just to agree on the design of the memorial. He wanted something on the ground ready for the public as soon as possible, and the one year anniversary of the crash was a milestone for him.

Over the years, the Boy Scouts and other organizations have placed little memorial gardens on the grounds around the chapel. Every time we went back it seemed something else had been added. My favorite place, however, was the little room just off the foyer of the church that had perpetual candles and photos and histories of each of the passengers and crew of Flight 93. I used to stand in that room surrounded by 40 heroes. I looked at each picture. Read each biography. Wondered what went through their minds during the last ten minutes of their lives. I stood in awe and wondered if I would have had their courage in the face of such an impossible situation.

(Photos of the room and other views of the chapel are available in a 2011 Post-Gazette article. Follow the link to also fine a more complete history of Rev. Mascherino. Note that the goal mentioned in the article of moving the chapel closer to the National Memorial never materialized.)
Flight 93 Memorial Chapel.
Thunder Bell in its tower.
The front right corner is where t
he car struck the building in 2014.

It's been several years since I visited the chapel. I watch the online local newspaper to follow a little of what's happened. In November 2014 there was a tragic car accident at the busy intersection beside the chapel, and a car slammed into the corner of the building where my favorite little room was located. Sadly, one person died in that accident.

Rev. Mascherino himself passed away in 2013. He made provisions before his death, and control of the chapel was turned over to the Catholic Church of the East. There's a new face at the chapel. I'm sure it's being well cared for. Organizations still use the facility. The anniversary of 9/11 is still celebrated. In many ways nothing has changed, but I can't imagine visiting the chapel and not seeing Rev. Mascherino's broad smile and weathered hands outstretched in greeting. He was the chapel's voice, the chapel's vision, the chapel's spirit. In my mind the two will always be intertwined.

If you plan to visit the Somerset area and the Flight 93 National Memorial, I would encourage you to make some time to visit the chapel, as well. It's not far from the National Memorial, but the route from one memorial to the other isn't quite a direct route. You won't regret taking the extra time, however. As I found out as a child, the scenic route is often well worth the trip.

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