BAY RIDGE — In 2001, Father Gerard Sauer was a newly ordained priest at St. Patrick Church, helping guide a grieving parish through the horror of the 9/11 terror attack and its aftermath. Two decades later, he is the pastor of the Bay Ridge church, helping parishioners cope with the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I started here during one crisis and 20 years later, here I am again,” he said.
He was ordained June 2, 2001, by Bishop Thomas Daily and arrived at St. Patrick a few days later. He was just settling into his ministry when the World Trade Center was attacked on Sept. 11.
Father Sauer was quickly thrust into a new role as he reached out to parishioners who lost loved ones and organized Masses and prayer services.
It was a daunting task, especially for a new priest, he said, but he felt God’s hand guiding him through the experience.
“Because it’s only by God’s grace that you get through it,” Father Sauer said. “Somewhere inside we just find the strength to do that Mass, do that memorial. You get the strength to do it one event at a time.”
Eleven St. Patrick parishioners were killed at the World Trade Center. During the next several months, funeral Masses and memorial services were frequent at the church.
As news of the terror attacks started coming in on the morning of Sept. 11, then-pastor Msgr. Patrick O’Toole decided to go to the parish school with Father Sauer to lead the students into the church for a prayer service. The church also served as the pick-up point for parents to come and get their children on that chaotic day.
“We just thought it was a calming environment for the children,” Father Sauer recalled.
He said it’s important to remember that, in the first few days following the attacks, the families of many victims were still clinging to the belief that their missing loved ones might still be alive. “People talked about air pockets in the rubble, or that maybe their relatives were unconscious and in the hospital,” he said.
Over the next several days, as first responders searched the rubble of the twin towers for the missing, the priests kept the doors of St. Patrick open from the early morning until 11 p.m. to accommodate people who wished to pray.
Father Sauer and other priests took turns staying in the church in case anyone wanted to talk to them. “We took shifts. We didn’t approach people, because we didn’t want to interrupt them if they were praying. But we walked around the church to make sure people saw us. We were there for them if they needed us,” he said.
The church set up a condolence book for people to write prayers and list the names of the victims. The priests looked through the book every day. If they recognized the name of a parishioner, they paid a visit to the family.
A week after the attacks, St. Patrick held a Mass of Healing. In those pre-Facebook days, the parish got the word out by posting flyers in local supermarkets, restaurants, and store windows. Word spread quickly, Father Sauer said, “and literally, you couldn’t get in the church. People just came out.”
Father Sauer was tapped by the pastor to deliver the homily, basing his remarks on Romans 8.
“Nothing separates us from God. Absolutely nothing separates us from the love of God. The homily was really crafted around that scripture on the love of God,” he said.
The priest had yet another message he wanted to impart: “The God that I know, the God that I love, didn’t cause this. But He is helping us through it,” he said.
At the time of the first anniversary of 9/11, St. Patrick held a special Mass, organized by Father Sauer. The church was packed — with significant numbers of police officers, firefighters, and members of the armed forces — a sign that the memory of the attacks was still potent. Each pew was decorated with red, white, and blue ribbons, and the Eucharistic gifts were brought to the altar by members of 9/11 victims’ families.
Father Sauer served at St. Patrick from 2001 to 2006. He spent several years as the pastor of the Church of St. Mel, Flushing, and then returned to St. Patrick as its pastor.
“In 2001, with Sept. 11, I’d like to say I helped to lead the community through it. Now, I’ve been placed back here and am helping to lead people through COVID-19,” he said.
Father Sauer has sought to serve as a steady hand for parishioners during the pandemic. “God puts us where he wants us to be,” he said.
He will mark the 20th anniversary by celebrating a special Mass on Sept. 11, at St. Patrick’s Church at noon. “We are inviting back family members of people who perished that day,” he said.