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Lady Bird's Gift to St. Barnabas Church

By Michael Barr
Michael Barr

A stone that is part of the south wall at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in Fredericksburg is a remarkable piece of history. Given to the congregation by Lady Bird Johnson, the stone once occupied a place in the wall of the historic St. Barnabas Church on the island of Cyprus.

St. Barnabas, the man, became one of the giants of early Christianity. Most sources list Cyprus as his home. Born into the Jewish faith, St. Barnabas (known then as Joseph the Levite) converted to Christianity as a young man.

A gifted and passionate speaker, St. Barnabas met the Apostle Paul, and together they preached in Judea and Asia Minor. John Mark, believed to be the writer of the Gospel of Mark, sometimes traveled with them.

Around the year 61, St. Barnabas returned to Cyprus. Not long after beginning his ministry there, legend says an angry mob stoned him to death. Several centuries later the Byzantine Emperor financed a church at Salamis, Cyprus over the tomb that, according to legend, holds the Christian martyr's remains.


Fast forward to 1962. The Cold War is raging. The Eastern Mediterranean is in turmoil. There is tension between Israel and its neighbors. The Greeks and the Turks on the island of Cyprus didn't get along at all.

In August of 1962, Vice-President Lyndon Johnson, accompanied by his wife Lady Bird, boarded Air Force 2 for a state-sponsored good-will trip to Europe and the Middle East.

After visiting Greece, Lebanon and Turkey, the Johnsons made a 24-hour stop at the beautiful city of Nicosia, Cyprus. In a private conversation with Cyprian President Makarios, Mrs. Johnson expressed a special interest in St. Barnabas, the country's Patron Saint.

Mrs. Johnson told President Makarios, an archbishop in the Cypriot Orthodox Church, about a special place called St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in Fredericksburg, Texas.

As a gesture of friendship, President Makarios gave Mrs. Johnson a stone from the ruins of the church built over the tomb of St. Barnabas. Mrs. Johnson had the stone shipped to Texas.

At about the same time the congregation at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in Fredericksburg began making plans to build a new church at the corner of Creek and Bowie Streets. Workers broke ground in 1964.


Fredericksburg TX - Lady Bird Johnson at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church
Lady Bird Johnson at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church
Courtesy Fredericksburg Standard

In November 1964 the church planned a ceremony to lay the cornerstone. President and Mrs. Johnson attended the ceremony. The local newspaper reported that President Johnson drove himself and Mrs. Johnson from the LBJ Ranch to Fredericksburg in a white limousine.

A small army of aides and journalists followed the Johnsons from the ranch to Fredericksburg including Mrs. Johnson's Secretary Liz Carpenter, Jesse Kellam—a Johnson family friend and manager of KTBC radio and television in Austin and 2 chartered busloads of the white House Press Corps.

After the cornerstone ceremony, the attendees went inside the church where President and Mrs. Johnson helped place the stone, given to Mrs. Johnson by President Malkarios, in the south wall.


Fredericksburg TX - "From Saint Barnabas Church in Cyprus."
"From Saint Barnabas Church in Cyprus." rock
Photo by Michael Barr, June 2023

The stone measures 16 in. by 18 in. by 9 in. The inscription reads "From Saint Barnabas Church in Cyprus."

Mrs. Johnson addressed the group inside the church. "I am deeply moved," she said, "to present this stone to our own St. Barnabas Church in the Hill Country of Texas."

Mrs. Johnson and the President attended the first Sunday service in the new worship center at St. Barnabas. Mrs. Johnson donated money for landscaping. For the rest of her life she attended church there whenever she could, with family members and secret service in tow.

Occasionally Mrs. Johnson would bring a surprise guest to church. The actor George Hamilton attended a Sunday service at St. Barnabas with the Johnson family. He dated First Daughter Lynda Johnson at the time.

It is easy to understand Mrs. Johnson's attachment to St. Barnabas Episcopal Church. The buildings on the property are a blend of old and new, historic and contemporary. The grounds are beautiful. The location, away from traffic and the business district, is peaceful and quiet. The church, made of rock, wood and glass, is simple but stately—part country church and part cathedral.

Michael Barr
"Hindsights" August 5, 2023 Column



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