BAY RIDGE — Father James Devlin remembers exactly where he was on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001: the rectory of Our Lady of Angels, where he was the pastor.
Father Devlin had just returned from casting his vote in a primary election when he saw the television report of the first plane hitting the North Tower of the World Trade Center, and, later, subsequent reports of attacks in Washington and Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
In the weeks that followed, Father Devlin participated in funeral Masses for more than a dozen New Yorkers, including one of the first funerals for a firefighter, as he worked to bring some spiritual reprieve to the grieving Bay Ridge community.
“There is no experience like embracing somebody and having their tears fall on your cheeks,” he said.
Now, thanks to Father Devlin, Our Lady of Angels has a permanent physical remembrance of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. In February 2002, he went with a parishioner, John D’Onofrio, to a site in New Jersey where mounds of rubble from the destroyed Twin Towers had been moved, to “find a memento” of that fateful day.
Amid that rubble, he found two mangled steel beams melted together in what looked like a cross, and immediately turned to D’Onofrio and announced that they had found what they were looking for.
“It was very eerie,” Father Devlin said of life in the aftermath of the terror attacks. “It was an incredible time. Every day there was something new. It just took over and was a force of its own.”
Father Devlin and D’Onofrio brought that salvaged cross back to Our Lady of Angels, where it has remained since then, even as Father Devlin left the parish and now serves as pastor emeritus at Good Shepherd Parish. A plaque sits alongside it with the names of Our Lady of Angels parishioners who died in the 9/11 attacks.
The months leading up to the discovery of the cross in New Jersey were demanding for Father Devlin and his fellow clergy members. The only female police officer killed in the attacks, Moira Smith, was an Our Lady of Angels parishioner. In total, 2,753 people were killed in the attacks in New York, with more than 1,700 families having no remains returned to them. Experts report that the deaths from diseases related to the terrorist attacks nearly outnumber those lost on Sept. 11, 2001.
Despite the heartbreaking loss of life, Father Devlin recalls that “it was really a wonderful time to be a priest, because you really felt like you were in some small measure comforting people and really being with people. Literally smelling the sheep, as the pope says.”
Those who remember those who died the best are those who were closest to them, Father Devlin said, adding that it is an inevitable reality that the attacks on the World Trade Center will become, for many, less of a lived experience and more of a history lesson.
The Eucharist, he says, serves as a reminder of the sacrifice of Jesus for humanity. Father Devlin is certain that for his fellow Catholics, it is part of their belief system.
“That’s what we do every time we celebrate the Eucharist. We remember what Jesus did, that he died and rose again so we can be free of sin,” he said.