Alabama church to build labyrinth as memorial to 3 parishioners gunned down at potluck last year

By David Paulsen
Posted Apr 20, 2023
Construction site

Construction is underway at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Vestavia Hills, Alabama, on a labyrinth that will memoralize Bart Rainey, Sharon Yeager and Jane Pounds, the three parishioners who were shot and killed in June 2022 at a church potluck. Photo: John Burruss

[Episcopal News Service] The Alabama church where three members were murdered last year in a shooting at a potluck dinner has launched a fundraising drive for a memorial labyrinth. Church leaders hope the labyrinth will serve as “a place of pilgrimage and healing” in the face of deadly violence.

The campaign at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Vestavia Hills, Alabama, already has raised more than $50,000 in seed money, toward an estimated cost of $300,000. The project will pay tribute to longtime parishioners Bart Rainey, 84, Sharon Yeager, 75, and Jane Pounds, 84, who were killed June 16 when a visitor to the potluck pulled out a handgun and opened fire.

diagram of labyrinth

An artist’s sketch shows the memorial labyrinth planned at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Vestavia Hills, Alabama. Photo: St. Stephen’s

“A tranquil labyrinth garden is envisioned, where those from the community and the church may find peace through meditation and prayer,” the Rev. John Burruss, St. Stephen’s rector, said last month in a message to the congregation. The idea was developed by a group of parishioners with three goals: “Remembrance for our victims and survivors and their families, healing for our congregation and to further strengthen our connection to the community.”

Burruss, in an interview with Episcopal News Service, said construction has begun, with the aim of completing the memorial labyrinth by June, the one-year mark since the tragedy. He and members of the congregation have encouraged the public to return to St. Stephen’s, not as a crime scene but as a hopeful place.

“In some ways, the church has become a place of pilgrimage and a commitment to be intentional about how we reflect on places of violence and trauma,” Burruss said. “And the truth for us is that God is there, casting a light in the darkness, and darkness didn’t overcome it.”

The church sits on a six-acre campus, which already had a memorial garden that the congregation was expanding to include a columbarium at the time of the shooting. The ashes of one of the victims, Pound, is now buried in the church’s memorial garden, with her name on the garden’s wall.

The vestry adopted the plan to construct a memorial labyrinth in January, and on March 6, St. Stephen’s launched its communitywide fundraising campaign. Construction began March 27 on the garden labyrinth, which will include fountains, benches and a bronze plaque remembering Rainey, Yeager and Pounds.

The three victims of the shooting at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Vestavia Hills, Alabama: Bart Rainey, Jane Pounds and Sharon Yeager.

“What has been clear in conversations is our community wants to help with this project,” Burruss said in his announcement of the fundraising campaign, which is emphasizing small- dollar donations. “The more hands that contribute to this project, the more hopeful this project becomes.”

Robert F. Smith, the 70-year-old suspect in the killings at St. Stephen’s, has been charged with capital murder and could face the death penalty if convicted. Prosecutors reportedly have offered Smith and unspecified plea agreement after conferring with victims’ families, and a hearing is scheduled for May 2.

– David Paulsen is a senior reporter and editor for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at dpaulsen@episcopalchurch.org.