The body bag marked “Victim 0001” on Sept. 11, 2001, contained the corpse of Father Mychal Judge, a Catholic chaplain with the Fire Department of New York. When he heard about the disaster at the World Trade Center, he donned his Catholic collar and firefighter garb and raced downtown. He saw people jump to their deaths to avoid the inferno over 1,000 feet above. At 9:59 a.m., the South Tower collapsed, and the force and debris from that mass of steel, concrete, glass and humanity as it hit the ground is likely what killed Father Mychal. His was the first recorded death from the attacks that morning. His life’s work should be central to the 10th anniversary commemorations of the Sept. 11 attacks: peace, tolerance and reconciliation.
One of the first vigils held this year was in honor of Father Mychal. About 300 people gathered last Sunday in front of the St. Francis Church where Judge lived and worked, just down the block from the Ladder 24/Engine 1 Firehouse. The march followed Father Mychal’s final path to ground zero. The man behind the annual remembrance is Steven McDonald, the former New York police detective who was shot in 1986. He was questioning 15-year-old Shavod Jones in Central Park. Jones shot McDonald, leaving him paralyzed for life.
I caught up with McDonald as he led the procession, rolling down Seventh Avenue in his wheelchair. He talked about what Father Mychal meant to him:
“He, more than anything … reaffirmed my faith in God, and that it was important to me to forgive the boy who shot me. And I’m alive today because of that.”
Father Mychal had managed to get Jones on the phone with McDonald and his wife. He apologized from prison. Taking the lessons of reconciliation, McDonald joined Judge in a trip to Northern Ireland, where they worked together to try to help end the violence there.
Father Mychal was well-known to the poor and afflicted of New York City and New Jersey. He helped the homeless, and people with HIV/AIDS. As a member of the Franciscan order, he would often wear the traditional brown robe and sandals. But there was a half-known secret about him: He was gay. In his private diaries, the revered Catholic priest wrote, “I thought of my gay self and how the people I meet never get to know me fully.” The diaries were given to journalist Michael Daly by Judge’s twin sister, Dympna, and appear in Daly’s book “The Book of Mychal: The Surprising Life and Heroic Death of Father Mychal Judge.”
Brendan Fay is a longtime Irish-American gay activist who was a friend of Judge’s. He produced a film about the Franciscan friar in 2006, called “Saint of 9/11,” and is finishing up another one called “Remembering Mychal.” Fay told me this week: “He was one of the priests at Dignity New York, an organization for gay and lesbian Catholics. … He ministered to (us) during the AIDS crisis, when there were few priests available to our community.”
I first interviewed Fay in October 2001, after an Associated Press photo appeared showing a U.S. bomb before being dropped on Afghanistan, with the words scrawled in chalk, “High Jack This, Fags.” The offensive slogan forced the military to order its sailors to pen more “positive” messages on their bombs.
On Sept. 20, 2001, President George W. Bush addressed a joint session of Congress. He declared, famously, “They hate our freedoms.” He welcomed Lisa Beamer to the Capitol, the widow of Todd Beamer, the passenger onboard United Flight 93 who was heard to say “Let’s roll” before attacking the hijackers. Beamer’s fellow passenger, Mark Bingham, a rugby player and public-relations consultant who also joined in the fight to prevent the hijackers from using the plane as a weapon, was openly gay. As was David Charlebois, the co-pilot of American Airlines Flight 77, which hit the Pentagon.
A decade later, Brendan Fay reflects on the life of his friend: “On 9/11, the one thing we can take from Mychal Judge is, in the midst of this hell and war and evil and violence, here is this man who directs us to another possible path as human beings: We can choose the path of compassion and nonviolence and reconciliation. Mychal Judge had a heart as big as New York. There was room for everybody. And I think that’s the lesson.”
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