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Bush-41 returns to St. Martin's-Houston for final rites

Bush-41 returns to St. Martin's-Houston for final rites
Twice in two days the nation watched the splendor and majesty of an Episcopal liturgical service

By Mary Ann Mueller
VOL Special Correspondent
December 8, 2018

HOUSTON, TEXAS --- Late Wednesday (Dec. 5) afternoon, Special Mission 41 touched down as the sun was dropping low in the sky. Former President George HW Bush was returning to his adopted hometown one last time. This time he returned to St. Martin's Episcopal Church for his final funeral rites and a last train ride to his burial site in College Station.

Accompanying him on the president's plane was Fr. Russell Levenson, St. Martin's rector, who has been the Bush family pastor for a dozen years. He was at Bush-41's bedside when he died. He went with the grieving Bush family to Washington, DC for the formal state funeral at the National Cathedral. He accompanied the Bushes back to Houston on Special Mission 41. He conducted the president's final funeral -- a smaller, more intimate service -- and he accompanied Bush-41 to his final resting place in College Station aboard the Presidential Funeral Train. Then, away from the prying eyes of the media, the elder Bush was laid to rest next to his first lady, Barbara Bush, with two Episcopal priests conducting the committal rite.

Wednesday, Special Mission 41 landed at Ellington Field just as Houston's rush hour was about to commence. Traffic was snarled as the former president was driven by hearse to St. Martin's where he lay in repose through the night. En route, drivers pulled over and stopped on the Interstate to watch the black funeral car go by. Darkness had fallen when President Bush returned to his home church for the final time. Lines of people were already beginning to form. They were preparing to quietly, reflectively and prayerfully pass by the flag-draped casket sitting upon a catafalque placed in front of the altar. All night the people came to pay their silent respects.

Thursday (Dec. 6) was the final day of public mourning for George HW Bush, a lifelong Episcopalian who became president. He was a New Englander who became a Texan and a husband and a father who chose Houston as the place to raise his growing family and to retire after his political life was completed. Three of his six children were born in Texas, the youngest daughter -- Dorothy -- was born in Houston. The children were spiritually nurtured at St. Martin's. It is there they went to church. It is there they attended Sunday school. It is there they participated in Christmas plays and Easter pageants. And the Bush children and grandchildren came back to St. Martin's to say a final good bye to not only their father, but also to their mother, Barbara Bush, a mere seven months ago. In their later years, the presidential couple usually sat next to St. George's window.

It was during the former First Lady's funeral that St. Martin's was first thrust into the limelight as national politicians and local dignitaries streamed into Houston for her Episcopal funeral which was livestreamed on the Internet and carried on network television.

Thursday, many of those same local, state and religious dignitaries returned for Bush-41's hometown funeral: Texas Gov. Greg Abbott ... Houston's mattress mogul -- James "Mattress Mack" McIngvale ... the Oak Ridge Boys ... Daniel Cardinal DiNardo ...

Bush's Houston funeral had a more patriotic flavor than his rite at the National Cathedral, where great care was taken to highlight a spiritual emphasis over the militaristic. Returning to Texas, the "Ruffles and Flourishes" were sounded each time the former president's casket was moved, however the musical fanfare was not followed by the traditional "Hail to the Chief." George HW Bush was a former president, but in returning to his home church he came simply as a Houstonian, a proud Texan and a lifelong Episcopalian. His full presidential honors were displayed in Washington.

St. Martin's funeral was a smaller and more intimate affair for family and friends. The same Book of Common Prayer funeral rite was used. It was the same familiar burial service that was used for Barbara Bush's April service and for his service at the National Cathedral. This time the "National Anthem" was played as was "America the Beautiful" and "This is my Country."

The Navy Hymn was used as the gradual hymn before and after the reading of the Gospel.

Presidential son George W. Bush took a back seat. The family eulogy fell to the eldest grandson, not the eldest son. George P. Bush regaled the assembled congregation with his memories of his "Gampy." Keeping with the family tradition of public service, the younger namesake George Bush is the Texas Land Commissioner. Houston born, he is the son of Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida.

The senior Bush was a long-time fan of the Oak Ridge Boys. He first met them in 1983 when he was vice president and their friendship grew and stood the test of time. They once sang that hymn to him over the telephone as he was battling for life in a Houston ICU. That was just the medicine the president needed at the time to bolster his spirits. They were tapped to sing again to their departed friend. Side-stepping their Christmas tour, they came to Houston to sing "Amazing Grace" at Bush's funeral.

The Oaks said that when he had a chance their presidential friend used to like to join in and sing bass and share the microphone with Richard Sterban.

"He fancied himself to be a good bass singer," tenor Joe Bonsall revealed. "He was not."

Bush-41 nearly fell out of his front row seat laughing from fond memory, then he quietly sang along with the Oaks as they serenaded his father one last time, singing acapella.

The Oaks were not the only country music stars to participate in the Houston rites. Reba McEntire sang her own rendering of the Lord's Prayer to a simple piano accompaniment.

President Bush-the-younger also really liked St. Martin's parish choir's performance of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," the Civil War hymn written by Julia Ward Howe and arranged by Peter J. Wilhousky. The Wilhousky's concert arrangement of the hymn is famous. It was also the version used at President Ronald Regan's 2004 state funeral at the National Cathedral.

Bush-41 kept time with the music by the nodding of his head and tapping his foot while singing along on the chorus, as did his brother Jeb, then they showed their appreciation with applause.

Following the benediction by Bishop Andrew Doyle (IX Texas), the final hymn of the Houston funeral rite was "Onward Christian Soldiers", which as sung as Bush-41 left his church for the final time with full military honors. His four-service honor guard never left his side.

Outside, all of St. Martin's clergy, a baker's dozen of them, including Bishop Doyle and Bishop Claude Payne (VII Texas) lined up along the walkway to witness the loading of Bush-41's casket and prayerfully send him on his way to his presidential library in College Station via a special funeral train waiting for him at the Union Pacific tracks in Spring, Texas.

As the hearse pulled away various law enforcement officers from a variety of departments -- Houston Police Department, Harris County Sheriff's Office, the Texas Highway, Patrol and the Texas Rangers -- snapped to attention and saluted as the funeral car travelled down the driveway towards the larger highway. Again, Houston midday traffic was snarled as the funeral procession maneuvered over bridges and through overpasses on its way to the awaiting train. Drivers pulled over and stopped to watch a former president pass by.

All the while in Spring, a special Union Pacific funeral train had been assembled to receive the president's body and carry it to College Station and burial. The funeral train was made up of 13 cars being pulled by UP Engine 4141, a diesel engine painted to resemble Air Force One. The locomotive's light blue paint scheme stood out against the darkened gray sky.

The train was large enough to carry the extended Bush family and close friends. Fr. Levenson and Fr. Peter Cheney also joined the cortege riding to College Station. The priests were still wearing their albs and white festival stoles. Fr. Cheney is the summer chaplain at St. Ann's Episcopal Chapel in Kennebunkport Maine, where the Bushes summered. He also travelled to Houston to participate in Barbara Bush's funeral in April.

The casket was displayed in the middle of the train in a flag-motif painted baggage car retrofitted with huge square picture windows to allow viewers to see the casket as it passed by. The final car carried a stylized presidential seal on back of its observation deck.

Bush-41 was a train enthusiast. He was born during a time in 1924, when trains were very much a part of the American scene. Mail was delivered by train. Each railroad had its own unique passenger service. And a young George Bush went to war riding a train and returned riding the train. It was a fitting conclusion to his funeral rituals to go by train to his burial place. As a candidate, Bush would use a train for whistle stop campaigning.

Thousands of Texans came out to watch the train pass by, catching a brief glimpse of the red and white stripes of the flag draping a presidential coffin as it went on its way. Some waved flags, but most took pictures with their cell phones. Many waved to the Bush family, while others displayed signs and banners of encouragement and remembrance. Each time the train came upon a cluster of people, it blew its horn, as if saluting those who came out to salute the former president and his family.

By the time the train arrived in College Station, it was raining, so the casket was covered with clear plastic to keep it dry. It was again transferred to a hearse for its final ride to the Bush Presidential Library on the campus of Texas A&M University. During the final strains of the National Anthem, the largest funeral missing-man fly-over zoomed across the Texas sky with 21 F/A 18 Hornets flying in precision in honor of Bush's service as a World War II Naval fighter pilot.

Then the president was solemnly carried down the stairs toward the grounds of his library and, eventually, over the bridge and behind the gate that leads into the private burial ground where his First Lady Barbara and young daughter Robin waited for him to join them in death.

The media was kept at bay. Only the family, selected friends, the Episcopal priests and military officers followed. Navy Chaplain Capt. Judy Malana never left the Bush-41's side. She was his personal military chaplain throughout the entire period of mourning. She joined him in Houston, followed him to Washington, then back again to Houston and on to College Station. Maj. Gen. Michael Howard performed the same service for Bush-43 and the grieving Bush family. Maj. Gen. Howard is the Commanding General of the Joint Force Headquarters -- National Capital Region of the U.S. Army Military District of Washington, which coordinated all the various aspects of the state funeral both in Texas and in Washington, DC.

On Friday (Dec. 7) the Secret Service official suspended its detail for "Timberwolf" (Bush-41).

Bush spokesman Jim McGrath tweeted: "The US Secret Service Bush Protective Division final notification: "Timberwolf's Detail concluded at 0600 ... with no incidents to report at the George Bush Presidential Library -- College Station, Texas. God speed Former President George H.W. Bush -- you will be missed by all of us."

The Bush grave sites are to reopen to the public on December 8.

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

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