Father Mychal Judge: The Saint of September 11th?
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, September 14, 2003
Just this past May—May 11th to be precise—a 70th birthday party was held in Manhattan. It was at the most unlikely of places—far from the penthouse suites of midtown or the loft apartments of Greenwich Village or Tribeca. It was a surprise party, but the person whose birthday it marked had been dead already for over a year and a half.
The party was held at a church—or more particularly, just outside a church—in the pouring rain, as it turned out—but even that could not dampen the joy and good fellowship of the festivities.
The party was held in front of the soup kitchen of the Church of St. Francis on West 31st Street, and here, from about 6:30 AM on May 11th, the homeless men and women waiting for their morning meal, were greeted by the sounds of festive music and the strains of “Happy Birthday to You”. Then, Moogie the Clown and her assistant arrived, with brightly colored balloons for all. There were special gifts—and treats—and lots of good cheer, as the men and women waiting in the bread line were given presents for their birthdays, on this, the 70th anniversary of the birth of Father Mychal Judge, the “Fireman’s Priest”, friend of New York’s homeless, Franciscan friar, official “Victim 0001” of September 11th. What better way to honor Father Mychal’s memory, his friends decided, then by honoring those he loved—by celebrating theirbirthdays, even as they honored his? As everyone gathered around and sang “Happy Birthday” to Father Mychal on that day, one friend said later, “We know he heard. We know he was with us at his party.”
Even in death, Father Mychal Judge touched the hearts of the people among whom he ministered.
It was about ten minutes to nine on the morning of September 11th when word reached the fire station on West 31st Street about the unfolding tragedy in lower Manhattan. Thick, black smoke already filled the sky. The men of Engine Company 1, Ladder Company 24 clambered into their gear and hurried to their trucks for the ride downtown.
Across the street at the Church of St. Francis, Father Brian Carroll went up to Mychal Judge’s room to tell him that a plane had just crashed into one of the World Trade Center towers, and that his services as Fire Department chaplain might well be needed. Quickly, Father Mychal removed his Franciscan habit and changed into his chaplain’s uniform, took just a moment to comb and spray his hair (he was always very particular about his neatly-permed white hair), and headed for the door. He hurried the thirty feet or so across the street to the firehouse, climbed into the large sedan kept there for the department chaplain, and with firefighter Michael Wineberg behind the wheel and the siren wailing, drove toward Ground Zero.
Already, the streets were filled with thousands of New Yorkers running for their lives in the opposite direction. As Father Mychal hurried from his car at the World Trade Center, Mayor Rudolf Giuliani, already at the scene, spotted him. The mayor grabbed the priest by the arm, and told him, “Mychal, pray for us.” As he ran by, Father Mychal turned to the mayor, and with a big grin across his face, replied, “I always do, Mister Mayor, I always do.” Then he followed the other firemen, up the stairs, toward the fire.
Along the way, Father Mychal stopped to administer last rites, first to firefighter Danny Suhr, then to the woman who had fallen from the North Tower, under whose body Suhr had been crushed. Then, he took off his helmet and walked into the lobby of the burning building. Moments later, a second plane hit Tower Two, and in the reign of debris that followed, Father Mychal Judge was hit by falling concrete, and killed instantly.
Electric power went out. Firemen were enveloped in acrid smoke, falling rubble, and total darkness. They couldn’t see; they couldn’t breathe. “Everybody hold hands,” someone shouted:
“Gasping, their eyes stinging, the men reached out for one another and started a slow, awkward march out of the stairwell and back through the lobby. They had proceeded no more than twenty paces when” one of them tripped over something. It was the body of Father Mychal.
“Everyone stopped. One of the firefighters aimed his flashlight low across the ground. A halo of light framed a man’s face. Everyone saw it. ‘Oh, my God,’ they began to shout. ‘It’s Father Mike.’”
They took his pulse, and confirmed that he was gone. Four of the men lifted Judge’s body from out of the rubble, and settled him in a broken chair from the lobby, so that they could carry him down a staircase into the street.
Then, they carried Father Mike around the corner, and into St. Peter’s Church on the corner of Church Street and Barclay. The firemen laid the dead priest gently on the altar, his helmet and badge perched in tribute on his chest; then, they said a few prayers, and quickly returned to the scene of the tragedy. In the hours that followed, other firemen would find a spare moment to come to St. Peter’s and pay homage to their chaplain, their much-loved Father Mike. One of them, Tom Ryan, said later: “I walked into the church. And in a world that was gray and dark, there was color, and laying on the altar was the body of Mychal Judge. In a horrendous moment, it was a beautiful site.”
Even in death, Father Mychal brought a sense of peace and benediction to the people among whom he ministered.
He was born Emmet Michael Judge (with “Michael”spelled in the usual manner) in Brooklyn, New York on May 11, 1933. He was a twin, but was born a full two days before his sister, Dympna. (Even his birth had a story attached to it, his eulogist would exclaim!) His parents were Irish immigrants from County Leitrim, who eventually bought a grocery store on Dean Street, but Mychal was only six when his father died after a long illness. To help his mother make ends meet, he was a shoe shine boy at Penn Station (just down the street from the Franciscan church), and from the earliest age, according to his sisters, Mychal always wanted to be a priest. He joined the Franciscans when he only 15 years old, took the vows of holy orders in 1955, and was ordained to the priesthood in 1961.
He served as pastor in churches in northern New Jersey—in Rochelle Park, East Rutherford, and East Milford. Between parish assignments, he also served as Vice President of Siena College in Loudonville. At East Milford, he was pastor at one of the most trying times in the town’s history. In quick succession, five young teens had committed suicide and two others had died in alcohol-related accidents. Father Judge reached into his own experience with suffering and torment, and touched the people of his community deeply. He said, “When tragedies strike us at an early age, maybe religion takes on greater meaning. The closer the tragedy is to our heart and home, the more likely faith is to form, because we’ve been tested and tried, and from that comes faith.”
Even during these early years in the priesthood, too, his love of firefighting and his admiration for firefighters became evident. “He was a real fire buff,” the Patterson fire chief said. His eulogist Father Michael Duffy, recalled a time in East Rutherford, when Father Judge stepped into the fray.
"I remember once I came back to the friary and the secretary told me, 'There's a hostage situation in Carlstadt and Mychal Judge is up there.' So, I said, "Oh, gosh." Well, I got in the car … drove up there.
"There was a house and there was a man on the second floor with a gun pointed to his wife's head and the baby in her arms," Father Duffy said. "And he was threatening to kill her. When I got there, there were several people around, lights, policemen and a fire truck. And where was Mychal Judge? Up on the ladder in his habit, on the top of the ladder, talking to the man through the window of the second floor. I nearly died because in one hand he had his habit out like this, because he didn't want to trip. So, he was hanging on the ladder with one hand. He wasn't very dexterous, anyway. I was fearful and he was, you know, his head bobbing like, 'Well, you know, John, maybe we can work this out. You know, this really isn't the way to do it. Why don't you come downstairs, and we'll have a cup of coffee and talk this thing over?'
"I was there, we're all there, saying, 'He's going to fall off the ladder. There's going to be a gunplay.' Not one ounce of fear did he show. But he was telling him, 'You know, you're a good man, John. You don't need to do this.' Sure enough, the man put the gun down and the wife and the baby's lives were saved. We expected to hear a gunshot, but it all turned out peacefully."
That's how he was, said Duffy: "He inserted himself right where the action was, and then he would somehow bring about peace."
In 1986, Father Mychal Judge came home again to New York City, when he was assigned to the Church of St. Francis on West 31st. There, so many more would be touched by the love of this good and saintly man…
In 1992, when Father Mychal Judge became Fire Chaplain he said, "I always wanted to be a priest or a fireman; now I'm both." He worked tirelessly in support of the department, and of the people he met along the way. His answering machine would collect 30 or 40 or more messages a day—he wore one out after only six months on the job. Every night, he would return to his simple room at the rectory at St. Francis at 10 or 11 PM, and then spend two more hours making phone calls, and checking in on people in need of his help. Many nights, he’d conclude with a 1 AM phone call to the men at Engine 1-Ladder 24 across the street. As he spoke to them, Father Mychal would wander over to his window, facing south over 31st Street, and wave.
When he met Mother Teresa of Calcutta during one of her visits to New York City, Father Mychal asked the great nun for spiritual guidance. “Pray three hours every day,” she told him. “Three hours?” he replied. “That’s great, Sister, but I’ve got to get to work!”
He lived simply, with few of the world’s possessions, but he was blessed with many friends and a wide arc of love. At the friary, his room was immaculate and spare. "Another aspect, a lesson that I learned from him, his way of life, is his simplicity," said Michael Duffy. "He lived very simply. He didn't have many clothes. They were always pressed, of course, and clean but he didn't have much, no clutter in his room, [it was a] very simple room. "
Every morning, he'd wake up at around 6:30 and give thanks for his sobriety (a recovering alcoholic, Judge had joined AA years before, and considered the Twelve Step movement one of America’s great contributions to the world of spirituality). At the morning service, he sat in the first row, always on the right, and prayed aloud for the city's workers: its bus drivers and subway workers and teachers, its councilmen and mayor. He liked to preach, sitting down, from the first pew as well.
He walked almost everywhere, briskly. There were days he'd start at the friary and go all the way to Coney Island via the Brooklyn Bridge, a dignified figure in leather sandals and a friar's habit. He never left his room without a wad of $1 bills to distribute to the homeless, many of whom knew Father Mike by his first name.
Mychal Judge put on no airs, he held no distinction between himself and the people around him. He was among the least judge-mental of people.
"Even though initially a person might approach him as pastor, chaplain, whatever, within 30 seconds all of those titles just fell down and he was just a friend. He wasn't afraid gently to mention God's presence." He was heartily spiritual, never ashamed to introduce God into ordinary conversation. He compulsively blessed people -- the pregnant, the homeless, the random traveler on the bus-- "whether they wanted it or not!"
Father Duffy continues:
"A little old lady would come up to him and he'd talk to them, you know, as if they were the only person on the face of the earth. Then, he'd say, 'Let me give you a blessing.' He put his big thick Irish hands and pressed her head till I think the poor woman would be crushed, and he'd look up to heaven and he'd ask God to bless her, give her health and give her peace and so forth. By the end she'd be crying; she'd love it.
"He loved to bring Christ to people” Father Duffy continues. “He was the bridge between people and God and he loved to do that."
He ministered to the family members of 230 people killed on TWA flight 800, which crashed at Kennedy International Airport on takeoff in 1996. He was active in ministry to those suffering from AIDS, even in the early years, when many clergy wanted nothing to do with them, and irrational fears were rife. In the days before medications had been developed to help stem the effects of AIDS, Father Mychal had gone to visit a man who was in such advanced illness that no one would go near him because of the stench.
Father Mychal told a friend afterward: “You know, no one touches the man. He must feel so lonely.” So he'd go visit him, and hold his hand. Once he bent over and kissed him on the forehead because he felt so bad that no one would come near him.
When Cardinal O’Connor and the New York archdiocese barred the gay Catholic group Dignity from its facilities, Father Mykal helped arrange a temporary home at St. Francis for its AIDS ministry. When his friend the gay activist Brendan Fay established a St. Patrick's Day parade in Queens that permitted gays to march, Mychal Judge was among those walking in March 2000—in spite of a call from the archdiocese for all clergy to boycott the parade.
On September 10, 2001, less than 24 hours before he died, Father Mychal Judge traveled to the Bronx to help rededicate one of the oldest firehouses in the city.
He told those who had gathered: "[We have] good days, bad days. But never a boring day on this job. You do what God has called you to do. You show up, you put one foot in front of the other, and you do your job, which is a mystery and a surprise. You have no idea, when you get in that rig, what God is calling you to. But He needs you . . . so keep going. Keep supporting each other. Be kind to each other. Love each other. Work together. You love the job. We all do. What a blessing that is."
Indeed, his deeper attitude toward life—and toward faith—is summed up in a little prayer he wrote, and would often recite:
Such a holy genuine life blesses us all, and redeems our humanity, and brings us all closer to the God in whose image we were created. There is now a movement afoot to make Mychal Judge an official saint of the Roman Catholic Church. It is an uphill struggle, which has received little support from powers that be within the church, and is given little chance of success. Indeed, many of Mychal’s friends believe that, were he alive, Mychal Judge himself would roll with laughter at the thought of himself as a saint.
When someone suggested to the great Catholic activist Dorothy Day that she was a saint, she replied: “Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed that easily.”
Such might well be Father Mychal’s reply.
For even more importantly, he was a living saint—a man whose love flowed freely and touched those around him. That is something that no powers of church or state can ever deny. He was a man who simply went where a deeper voice called him, and doing the will of God on Earth, as he saw fit.
And that, truly, is more important—and a blessing of God more dear—then any prayers and liturgies that could be said to him in any church—than any accolades that could be granted him as an “official” saint of the church.
And that is the kind of sainthood to which all of us can aspire- however incompletely and however imperfectly. We, too, can listen for the voice of the Spirit in our lives, and try to do the will of our Higher Power within us and all around. May we, like dear Father Mychal, pray to go where the Spirit sends us, and learn the lessons the Spirit has to teach us, and have common sense enough to get out of the Spirit’s way when we are guided down those challenging and awesome highways of our souls.