A Visit to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine

On a brilliantly sunny, late summer morning last August 2000, two women met for the first time to share an iced coffee and croissant near the Cathedral of St. John the Divine on Manhattans Morningside Heights. They could have been mother and daughter having a mundane conversation or enjoying a leisurely outing. Instead they were meeting to discuss their mutual losses from two plane crashes: TWA Flight 800 in 1996, and Swissair Flight 111 in 1998. One woman was Heidi Snow who lost her fiancé, Michel Breistroff on the TWA Flight. The other was Nancy Wight, who lost her sole daughter, Rowenna Wight White, in the Swissair crash. Since there is a TWA memorial in the Cathedral and Rowenna is interred in the columbarium, the two women paid a visit to the largest Gothic edifice in the world.

St. John the Divine, still unfinished, is the size of two football fields and has the height of a 12-story building. The nave consists of five aisles and lofty piers, which rise gracefully from floor to ceiling. The chief architect was Ralph Adams Cram from Boston and ground was broken in 1916. The engineering principles he used were 700 years old, but the design was virtually new. Entering this enormous space, one finds the TWA memorial about two thirds of the way down the left aisle just behind the tomb of Bishop Manning. Three brass plaques on the wall list the 230 names of the TWA Flight 800 victims, including that of Breistroffs. An engrave quotation from Psalm 139 reads:

If I take the wings of the morning,
And dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea
Even there shall thy hand lead me,
And thy right hand shall hold me.

Usually there is a candle burning on a pedestal and even sometimes, fresh flowers.
Above the brass names is a small, stained glass window in memory of the victims of the Titanic. Continuing further along, one passes the gift shop entrance, contemporary art exhibits, a short stairway, and, with a turn to the left, one comes across a large baptismal font.

Finally one enters St. Ansgars Chapel, named for the great Apostle to the North, and one of seven chapels that rings the high altar. Here is the columbarium chamber where Rowenna Wight Whites limited identified remains are buried. She was one of the 229 victims aboard Swissair Flight 111 crash that, like TWA Flight 800 had no survivors. Had Rowennas mother had accompanied her as originally planned, the fatalities would have been 230, the very same number as TWA Flight 800. The caretaker of the Columbarium requested a picture of Rowenna, framed it, and attached it to the burial site underneath her dates:

May 17, 1980 ” called back ” September 2, 1998

St. John the Divine is the chief seat of the Bishop of the Episcopal Church in New York, but anyone may be buried in the columbarium, Episcopalian or not. One notes many Asian names, a prominent choreographer, a former cathedral usher, several premature deaths due to AIDS, a relative of Jacqueline Onnassis, and baby Antonia, who lived all of one day. Sometimes a violinist plays and the school children of the Cathedral gather on All Saints Day in October for a discussion of death. The columbarium is a peaceful place where people can visit their loved ones during cathedral hours. For Heidi Snow and Nancy Wight, it was an opportunity to get to know one another and to share a sorrow that only others in their circumstances can comprehend.

Nancy Wight lost her daughter Rowenna, 18, aboard Swissair Flight 111 on September 2, 1998

Download PDF

Posted in Our Newsletter


Surviving Sudden Loss: Stories from those who have lived it

Book proceeds benefit ACCESS
Purchase Here

Families We Have Helped:

Below are some of the air disasters that we have responded to:
Private Plane - 9/26/12
Rockingham County, VA
Private Plane - 2/27/11
Abu Dhabi
Private Plane - 12/22/10
Barrington, NY
Private Plane - 7/17/10
South Portland, ME
Air India Express 812 - 5/22/10
Mangalore, India
Afriqiyah Airways 8U771- 5/12/10
Tripoli, Libya
Ethiopian Airlines 409 - 1/25/10
Off of Na'ameh, Lebanon
Air France Flight 447 - 6/1/09
Atlantic Ocean
Turkish Airlines Flight 1951 - 2/25/09
Amsterdam Airport Schiphol
Continental Flight 3407 - 2/12/09
Clarence Center, NY
US Airways Flight 1549 - 1/15/09
Hudson River, NY
Aeroflot Flight 821 - 9/14/08
Perm, Russia
Spanair JK 5022 - 8/20/08
Madrid, Spain
TAM Airways JJ 3054 - 7/17/07
São Paulo, Brazil
Comair Flight 5191 - 8/27/06
Lexington, KY
Airbus A320-211 - 5/3/06
Off Sochi, Russia
Bellview Airlines - 10/23/05
West Caribbean Airways 708 - 8/16/05
Machiques, Venezuela
Air France Flight 358 - 8/2/05
Ontario, Canada
Kam Air Flight 904 - 2/3/05
Pamir Mountains, Afghanistan
Corporate Airlines 5966 - 10/19/04
Pettis Township, MO
Kish Airlines Flight 1770 - 2/10/04
United Arab Emirates
Georgian Express Flight 126 - 1/17/04
Ontario, Canada
Flash Airlines 604 - 1/3/04

Red Sea

Turkish Airlines 634 - 1/8/03

Diyarbakır Airport, Turkey

US Airways Express/Air Midwest Flight 5481 - 1/8/03

Charlotte, NC

American Flight 587 - 11/12/01

Queens, NY

The events of September 11, 2001

Private Plane - 12/3/00
Milltown, WI
Singapore Airlines 006 - 10/31/00

Chiang Kai-shek Internat'l Airport

Gulf Air Bus A320 - 8/23/00

Persian Gulf, Bahrain

Air France Concorde 4590 - 7/25/00

Gonesse, France

Alaska Airlines 261 - 1/31/00

Pacific Ocean

Egypt Air 990 - 10/31/99

Atlantic Ocean

American Airlines 1420 - 6/1/99

Little Rock, AR

Swissair 111 - 9/2/98

Atlantic Ocean

Private Plane - 8/4/98
Phillips, WI
TWA 800 - 7/17/96

US Air 427 9/8/94

Allegheny County, PA

Long Island, NY

Pan Am 103 - 12/21/88

Lockerbie, Scotland

TWA/United Airlines - Mid-Air Collision- 12/16/1960
Brooklyn & Staten Island, NY
and hundreds of other private, commercial and military air disasters

See Full List