MANHATTAN — Father Mychal Judge died doing his “dream job” at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, but a legacy of love and compassion has grown from the tragedy.
That was the assessment of many of his friends and admirers who participated in the annual 9/11 Walk of Remembrance on Sunday, Sept. 5, to honor Father Judge and the 412 first responders who died that day two decades ago.
Father Judge, killed at age 68, was a beloved chaplain for the New York City Fire Department, a task he had eagerly performed since 1992. He was so compassionate and uplifting that firefighters considered him a member of their ranks.
Bob Hickey of the group Mychal’s Message was among the hundreds of walkers who assembled outside St. Francis Church in Manhattan on 31st Street, the church where Father Judge was assigned. Hickey said he was an altar boy at St. Joseph Parish in East Rutherford, New Jersey. when his family formed a lifelong friendship with Father Judge.
“That was his first assignment as a priest,” Hickey said. “He went several other places until he wound up here. He always said this was his dream job. He had the best of both worlds. He got to be a priest and a fireman.”
St. Francis of Assisi Church is across the street from the FDNY’s Truck 1/Ladder 24 station, where Father Judge jumped onto a truck headed to the emergency at the World Trade Center 20 years ago.
Hickey, who now lives in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, said he became numb upon learning that his friend died at ground zero.
“It was like disbelief,” he said. “I knew he’d be there. But you never think a friend is going to die. You just don’t. When I found out exactly how it happened, I wasn’t surprised. He was there doing what he always did, helping people.”
Hickey said Mychal’s Message was founded in 2002 by his granddaughter, Shannon Lapp, who was an 11-year-old liver transplant survivor when Father Judge died.
“She had had a life-changing event with a liver transplant, and Father Mychal carried us all through it,” Hickey said. “For three solid months, he called us every evening to pray with us.”
Shannon founded Mychal’s Message to honor the priest. It has several ministries for poor and homeless people, such as collecting garments for them.
“To see all these people gathered here today is so wonderful,” Hickey said. “Wonderful just to remember him, and continue his legacy. You know, people are helping other people because of him.”
‘He Knew His Flock’
Members of Mychal’s Message set up a table outside the fire station to sell T-shirts decorated with a prayer Father Judge was famous for saying:
“Lord, take me where you want me to go. Let me meet who you want me to meet. Tell me what you want me to say. And keep me out of your way.”
Before the Walk of Remembrance stepped off from the church and fire station, Father James Hansen recited the prayer. He serves St. William the Abbot Parish in Seaford, New York. But he first learned about Father Judge from Steven McDonald, a parishioner at his former church, St. Agnes in Rockville Centre, New York.
Father Hansen said McDonald, who died four years ago, was one of the original organizers of the Walk of Remembrance. He further explained that Father Judge and McDonald had become friends in 1986 after McDonald, a detective in the New York City Police Department, became a quadriplegic in a shooting.
He said McDonald told him about how Father Judge was found in the lobby of the North Tower, mortally injured by debris that shot through the area from the collapsing South Tower. Firefighters carried the priest to nearby St. Peter’s Church and laid his body at the altar.
Father Judge was recognized as the first official victim of the attacks and designated “Victim 0001.”
“That image,” Father Hansen said, “is tied to the model of the priesthood that I’d like to live.”
“I think the whole life of the priesthood is giving your life for your flock,” he added. “[Father Judge] knew his flock, and he was with them.”
John Bates, another longtime friend of McDonald and an original organizer of the walk, agreed.
“He stayed at his station the entire time,” Bates said of Father Judge.
“There were hurt firemen and hurt civilians. He could have jumped in the ambulance with them, but that wasn’t his role that day. His role was to get strength and support to all those members of the Fire Department, Police Department, whatever organization, who were trying to take care of those people trapped in the World Trade Center.”
As the Sunday remembrance event moved forward, the walkers turned from 31st Street onto 7th Avenue, following the route Father Judge traveled to ground zero. Along the route, marchers stopped at police stations and firehouses. On-duty personnel stood at attention during a reading of the names of the comrades they had lost on 9/11.
The procession ended at St. Peter’s Church, where the priest’s body had been brought in 2001, just a few blocks from where the twin towers once stood.
Representing the FDNY command staff was Asst. Chief Michael Gala, who said the event properly honored not only Father Judge, but all first responders and civilians who died that day. He recited those numbers which, he said, would never be forgotten.
“It’s just as raw and fresh as it was 20 years ago,” he said. “That’s 343 firefighters, 23 NYPD, 37 Port Authority police, and nearly 3,000 civilians just going to work that day. When we say never forget, it’s not just for the FDNY.”
Father Judge has become known as the first victim of that day, but he clearly was not the first to die. Rather, the priest is the first person to be identified and recorded in the records kept by the city Medical Examiner’s office.
‘Firefighters Have No Borders’
Bates, the retired harbor pilot who helped to initiate the annual walk, said Sunday that he had met Father Judge, but he didn’t know about his extraordinary courage until he started working with McDonald to launch the day of remembrance.
Now in its 19th year, the event has grown from 35 marchers in 2002 to this year’s estimated 500 participants, Bates said.
“The walk has, in a way, taken on a life of its own,” Bates added. “Through the years we’ve become more organized, more and more groups have joined us. Now we have the NYPD, FDNY, and the Port Authority police represented. People come from near and far.”
Included this year were six first responders from Paris, France, who presented walk officials with a shiny French-style fireman’s helmet bearing a picture of Father Judge wearing his own helmet.
Christopher Cornolo, an adjutant for his department in Paris, said he remembers news images of firefighters and a civilian volunteer, all covered with smoke and concrete dust, hauling Father Judge’s body from the destruction.
It is an iconic image of Sept. 11, but Cornolo said it was difficult for him to see.
“Firefighters have no borders,” he said. “When a firefighter in the USA dies, all firefighters grieve.”