The Priests of September 11, 2001: Men of Word and Sacrament
Father Edward J. Burns
Executive Director of the Secretariat for Vocations and Priestly Formation
On Tuesday, September 11, 2001, I walked from my car to the front door of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) here in Washington, DC, looked at the dome on the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, and thought to myself that it was a beautiful day. It was to be a busy day because many bishops were coming in for the Administrative Committee of the Bishops' Conference. The day started with a heightened level of activity due to the presence of the bishops.
But life's routine changed without a moment's notice, with the unfolding news that two planes had struck the World Trade Center, then the Pentagon and later, an airline crash in Pennsylvania. The bishops were informed of the attacks, and they released a statement. Cardinal McCarrick scheduled a noon Mass at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. The bishops and approximately 5,000 others were at the mass that day. They joined their prayers to God with so many other people throughout the country and world for peace and for the victims and their families.
As the day unfolded, I heard about a Franciscan priest, chaplain to the firemen in New York, who was killed at the World Trade Center. I later learned that his name was Father Mychal Judge, OFM. He died while ministering to a fallen firefighter. His story was covered by the media. He was given a hero's farewell at his funeral. His fireman's helmet was presented to Pope John Paul II on November 10, 2001.
As a priest for twenty years and as Executive Director of the USCCB Secretariat for Vocations and Priestly Formation, news about priests always gets my attention. In light of this, I started collecting various stories of how my brother priests responded to the events of September 11, 2001. This collection is by no means complete. As I started gathering stories, many more surfaced of priests serving courageously in a time of national tragedy. Others will come to light. In the meantime, here and in the "We Were There . . ."1 booklet are some illustrations of how priests fulfilled their role as men of word and sacrament during the events of September 11, 2001.
NEW YORK CITY
Father Kevin Smith, a chaplain with the Nassau County Fire Department, received word from his secretary to turn on the news. In learning of the situation at the World Trade Center, he picked up his brother, Patrick, a firefighter in New York City, and proceeded to the WTC. As he describes in "We Were There . . ." he came upon Father Mychal Judge's body after the collapse of the first tower. Not recognizing the man, he simply verifies his death, blesses the body, and continues on his mission. After the collapse of the tower, he learns that rescue workers had continued to carry the body of Father Judge to an office building. Father Smith looked for them, was taken to the body that he could then identify, and asked that Father Judge be taken to St. Peter's Church. It was there that Father Judge's body was placed near the altar in the sanctuary. Father Smith went to the first pew—and prayed.
Maryknoll missioner, Father Raymond Nobiletti, MM, pastor of Transfiguration Parish in New York, was one of the first priests on the scene after the attacks of the World Trade Center. A photographer captured the priest ministering to a woman who was severely burned. Moments after the photo was taken, the south tower of the WTC fell. Father Nobiletti and the others photographed were stunned and dazed by the force of the collapsed building. The second photograph shows Father Nobiletti, still wearing his stole, covered in soot and ashes.
Left: Father Nobiletti ministers to an injured woman just prior to the collapse of the towers (Photo courtesy of Richard Cohen). Above: Father Nobiletti, wearing his stole, just after the collapse of the towers (Photo reprinted with permission of Maryknoll Magazine; taken by Gulnara Samoilova).A number of days after the attacks a man approached Father Kevin Madigan, pastor of St. Peter's Church, to apologize for what he did on September 11th. Not exactly sure what the man could possibly have done on that day, Father Madigan listens to him. In the moments after the attacks, a gentleman was bleeding and wounded on the street. Apparently the man and a number of others carried this badly injured gentleman into the church. In an effort to assist the person and address his wounds, the man explained to Father Madigan that in those moments, he saw no other option than to go quickly through the church, to each of the altars to strip them of the white altar linens and shred them in order to make bandages for the stricken gentleman. While they were in the church attending to the man's wounds, a terrible rumbling occurred; the day turned to night and they thought the roof was going to give way. The first tower had fallen. The sorrowful man told the priest that he was not Christian; yet that parish church became for him then a place of prayer and peace. The man told Father Madigan that he had made it a point to return to the church on a regular basis to give thanks.
Certain signs seemed to emerge at Ground Zero that gave people a sense of hope. A huge, steel crossbeam was blessed at Ground Zero near the corner of West and Vesey Streets. A FDNY firefighter, a NYPD police officer, a Port Authority police officer, an iron worker, a carpenter, an operating engineer, and a Franciscan priest, Father Brian Jordan, OFM, all participated in the blessing ceremony. The cross was discovered by a construction worker atop the rubble of World Trade Center 6 a few days after the September 11th attacks. It was actually a T-beam that connected floors with all buildings of the World Trade Center. It produced a profound religious experience for many amid the suffering and destruction. As a result, Father Jordan who served as a chaplain at Ground Zero, arranged to have the Cross excavated and erected on West Street through the Office of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. The mayor's office enlisted the help of iron workers, carpenters, and operation engineers for this task; all donated their time and material.
Father Mark Rowan, a priest of the Diocese of Rockville Centre and an Air Force Reserve Chaplain, was called for duty at Dover Air Force Base, Delaware, soon after September 11th. It was there that the Air Force had set up a mortuary center for heavy casualties that would come from the Pentagon. Father Rowan remarked, "It wasn't just the numbers. There were the military and civilian casualties among those working at the Pentagon. There were also civilians among the passengers on the hijacked jet. Some of those were children. And there were the terrorists' bodies." Father Rowan said that his parishioners of Our Lady of Lourdes Church broke into applause when he reported from the pulpit that he was going to assist in the aftermath. Even though the parishioners were supportive, he expressed concerns about leaving since there were a number of parishioners missing at the World Trade Center. His ministry included daily Mass for the mortuary workers along with providing the sacrament of penance for the survivors. In doing so, he said that, "much of the chaplain's work consisted of what he called ‘a visible reminder of the holy' for mortuary workers."2
Father Patrick Malone, SJ, spent time at the site of the World Trade Center three months after the attacks. He wrote about his experiences in a book entitled, Ground Zero: Love Triumphs All. He indicated that Ground Zero made him "quite aware that people just want someone to connect them to the transcendence or, truthfully, just have them become aware of how connected they already are . . . to give them the rituals, the words, the history . . . just let them realize just how close they are to God."3
The first airliner that crashed into the World Trade Center was piloted by Captain John Ogonowski. He was the pilot of American Airlines Flight 11 which departed from Boston and was bound for Los Angeles. His funeral was held at the Church of St. Francis with Father Brian Kiely presiding. Father Kiely was struck by the strong faith of Mrs. Peg Ogonowski and her three daughters among the 3,000 people in attendance. During the funeral, he asked the Archdiocesan Communications Department to assist in handling the media so that he could focus on his priestly ministry to the family and the parish. In his homily, Father Kiely said, "It would be an insult to [John's] memory and a victory for his murderers if we were to permit any sentiments of hatred to diminish our true dignity as sons and daughters of God. Our presence here today is the result of what unbridled hatred can do in the hearts of others, but in this sacred place, we proclaim again that nothing and no one can ever separate us from the love of God made manifest in Jesus Christ."
Holy Cross priest, Father Francis Grogan, CSC, former registrar of Stonehill College, boarded United flight 175 in Boston for Los Angeles to visit his family. His airline ticket was a birthday gift and his seat assignment was 1C. Directly behind him in seat 2C was James Hayden, a 1976 graduate from Stonehill College. While no one will ever know for sure what exactly transpired during those horrific moments, it seems inevitable that the two of them together watched this terrifying experience unfold before their eyes. In a letter to the Holy Cross Fathers, Mrs. James Hayden expressed her consolation in knowing that Father Grogan was present, realizing with a sure and certain hope that Father Grogan prayed and, to the best of his abilities, exercised his priestly ministry during those dreadful moments.
WASHINGTON, DC AREA
On September 11th two priests were at the Capitol Building: the chaplain to the House of Representatives, Father Daniel A. Coughlin, and a priest of the Diocese of Arlington, Father Gerard Creedon, who was scheduled to deliver the opening prayer for the U.S. House of Representatives. Those at the Capitol had already learned about the tragedy in New York. While a prayer had already been submitted for The Congressional Record, Father Coughlin asked Father Creedon to adjust his prayer to reflect what was taking place in New York. Congress was to start at 10:00 a.m. American Airlines flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon at 9:43 a.m. In a clergy newsletter, Father Coughlin described what transpired in the Capitol building at that time.
It was not 10:00 o'clock yet, but Representative Porter Goss said, "We are going to open now." We all headed to the chamber. It was 9:52 when Mr. Goss as the Speaker pro tempore said: "Due to the circumstances of today, the Chair calls the House to order at this time. The prayer will be offered by the guest chaplain." Father Gerry Creedon prayed:For Father Steven McGraw, a priest from the Diocese of Arlington, it all happened with a wrong turn. On that fateful Tuesday morning, he was on his way to a burial service at the Arlington National Cemetery. He took a wrong turn and found himself in traffic next to the Pentagon. American Airlines flight 77 flew twenty feet over his car, clipped a light pole, and crashed into the Pentagon. After the initial horror, shock, and disbelief, he reached to his glove compartment, took out his stole and holy oils and ran to the scene leaving his car on the road. He was prepared to minister to those in need and equipped to anoint the wounded and dying. As he got there, people were being carried out. He identified himself, prayed with some, anointed others, and offered any words of encouragement he could. He assisted the many workers scrambling on the scene. He encountered a young woman who was seriously burned. As he was ministering to her, she looked up at him and simply said, "Tell my Mom and Dad I love them." She was then taken to a local hospital by helicopter. It was in the evening that Father McGraw made his way back to his car, located exactly where he left it earlier in the day, in the left lane of the road. But it was now tagged and marked by the FBI as a witness car.5
‘God of peace and life, send Your Spirit to heal our country. Bring consolation to all injured in today's tragedy in New York and Washington. Protect us and help our leaders to lead us out of this moment of crisis to a new day of understanding and peace. Amen.'With a pound of the gavel, the Speaker pro tempore said, "The House will stand in recess subject to the call of the Chair." . . . As we exited the Capitol and crossed the parking tarmac we were told by the Capitol Police we could not go back into our offices and we should distance ourselves from the Capitol building by going on the green toward the Library of Congress.
I asked Gerry if he wanted to leave and said he certainly should feel free to do so since staffers were being told to go home. But if he wanted to stay I would appreciate it. I added, "Not knowing what may happen next, it may be good to have more than one priest around." Gerry Creedon agreed to stay. In fact, he stayed until late in the afternoon. The only act of Congress that day was to pray.4
Father Verne Schueller, a chaplain in the Air Force, was in the Pentagon at the time of the attack. He was attending a meeting of Command Chaplains. They had heard the news of the attacks in New York and were just about to start their meeting when they were jolted by a bang. Seconds afterward they heard the words, "Evacuate the building." As he describes in "We Were There…" requests were made for volunteers to go back into the Pentagon to look for wounded or dead. Being the only priest in the Pentagon at the time, he volunteers to do so. He is comforted by remembering Jesus' words, "Greater love has no man than to lay down his life for another." After that day, Father Schueller ministered at a local hotel that served as a crisis counseling center for families and friends of people who were listed as missing in the Pentagon.
SOMERSET COUNTY, PA
At St. Peter's rectory in Somerset, PA, Father Sean Code and others were watching the reports of what had transpired in New York City and at the Pentagon. They then received word from the local hospital that an airplane had gone down in Shanksville. Father Code and Msgr. Samuel Tomaselli and several other clergy members went to the hospital. The clergy and trauma team workers waited outside the emergency room. Gowned and gloved, they were prepared for the casualties to come. However, no one came to the emergency room. They were informed that there would be no casualties or bodies. The crash was so devastating that there was no plane. The site where the plane went down was now a crime scene. Father Code speaks of his involvement with the families when they came to Shanksville in "We Were There . . . ."
CLEAR LAKE, IOWA
"Father, it's Tommy. He's in the air right now and we think his plane is being hijacked." These words came to Father Joseph Slepicka in a phone call from the sister of Tom Burnett, Jr., on the morning of September 11, 2001. Tom Burnett had called his wife from United Flight 93 and she in turn called the rest of the family. Father Slepicka was like family. Many times he and Tom engaged in conversations about the faith. Thomas Burnett, Sr., Tom's father, had just received a message from his son indicating that he had finished reading St. Thomas Aquinas' Summa Theologica and looked forward to speaking with "Father Joe" about it. Father Slepicka, who officiated Tom's marriage to his wife Deena ten years earlier, presided at his funeral.
PRIESTS—SYMBOLS OF GOD'S PRESENCE
As the days, weeks and months passed after that tragic day, I learned that there were a great number of priests who played an instrumental part in the healing process. I was impressed with how my brother priests responded to the events of September 11, 2001. At the Bishops' Conference we learned that eighty priests from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia where ready to go to the New York City area to assist with the funerals and attend to the pastoral needs of the people. In order for that to occur, many other priests offered to cover for them while they were gone.
As one would expect, priests throughout the country led prayer services, celebrated Mass, and brought God's message of consolation to a people and a nation in mourning. In continuing to hear stories such as these, I still collect them, look for them and inquire about them. They are stories of priests doing what priests do best—bringing people to God and bringing God to people—through the Word and Sacraments.
1 "September 11, 2001, We Were There . . .: Catholic Priests, How They Responded, In Their Own Words," USCCB Secretariat for Vocations and Priestly Formation, available online at www.usccb.org/vocations/wewerethere.shtml
2 Linda Busetti, "Diocesan Priests Minister to Pentagon Victims," The Arlington Catholic Herald, September 20, 2001, http://www.catholicherald.com/articles/01articles/pentagon- mcgraw.htm (accessed February 6, 2002).
3 Rev. Daniel P. Coughlin, "How September 11th Became a Day of Prayer," Vicars for Clergy Newsletter, December 2001, no. 8.
4 Mike Krokos, "Ministering at Ground Zero, St. Luke Priest Learned of 'Enormity of People's Faith'," The Catholic Spirit. (From e-mail received by author August 4, 2003).
5 Pete Sheehan, "Father Rowan Describes 'Overwhelming' Situation," The Long Island Catholic, October 24, 2001, vol. 40, no. 30.