Tolling bells were an all-too-familiar sound at Catholic churches around the city in the weeks and months following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks 17 years ago.
That aural image has captivated Dr. Julie Byrne of East New York, and it is the inspiration for her newest project – a study of American Catholicism and the impact of that fateful day on suburban Catholic families in the tristate area.
Last month, the National Endowment for the Humanities selected Byrne and her project for one of 22 Public Scholar awards. She will receive a $60,000 federal grant to support her forthcoming research and writing, leading to a book she hopes to publish before the 20th anniversary of the attacks.
“I really found myself interested [in the events and aftermath of Sept. 11] when I moved to New York,” Byrne said.
She relocated to the city in 2006 when she was named the inaugural Msgr. Thomas J. Hartman Endowed Chair in Catholic Studies at Hofstra University, Hempstead, L.I., where she teaches religion.
Originally from South Central Pennsylvania, Byrne attended St. Paul the Apostle Church, Annville, and graduated from St. Mary’s Regional School and Lebanon Catholic H.S., both in Lebanon, Pa., before attending Duke University.
She holds undergraduate, master’s and doctorate degrees in religion from Duke, where she taught for several years. She’s previously written two books on aspects of Catholic life.
When she arrived at Hofstra, a colleague gave her a tour of the area and shared stories of life and Catholicism on Long Island, particularly in those first five years following the terrorist attacks. She heard about the losses endured and church bells that tolled at memorial and funeral services for months on end. Byrne was struck by what she heard and realized that Roman Catholics suffered significant losses – both in the buildings and on the ground.
Her next lessons came in the classroom as students shared their memories. “It really affected them,” Byrne recalled. “Some had lost uncles, aunts. It seemed like everyone lost someone.”
To understand the impact of the attacks on the families left behind, Byrne seeks to tell the larger story of second- and third-generation immigrants who perished in the towers. She’ll study those who were the first in their families to hold white-collar jobs and leave the old neighborhood.
“I’m interested in the movement of Catholics from the city to the suburbs and their upward mobility,” she explained.
She also plans to explore the reverberations felt in the lives of those left behind.
Byrne says she is grateful to the National Endowment for the Humanities for the grant to do this research. She looks forward to sharing what she learns in her next book, and like Msgr. Hartman, for whom her chair at Hofstra is named, she hopes to make religion more “accessible and translatable to a wider population.”