An Unusual Pilgrimage of Healing and Forgiveness in New York

Octavio Duran Features

NEW YORK – This year, for the first time, the Sept. 11 Mychal Judge Walk of Remembrance began with a Mass at St. Francis of Assisi Church on West 31st Street.

According to Christopher Keenan, this Mass, which has become a tradition on the Sunday before Sept. 11, has been celebrated in previous years in the firehouse across the street from the church. On this, the fourth anniversary of the walk, New York Police Department Detective First Grade Steven McDonald, who organized the walk, gathered with approximately 350 people at St. Francis to celebrate Mychal’s memory and the memory of those who lost their lives during the attacks on the twin towers.

At the beginning of the liturgy, the pastor and concelebrant, Jerome Massimino, extended a warm welcome to the participants. “We prayed for anyone who lost a loved one in the terrorist attack on our city and nation just five years ago,” he said. On behalf of all the friars, he heartily thanked the many people, professionals and volunteers, who risked their lives or have given their lives for the sake of the thousands upon thousands of people who continue to live at this very moment because of their courage and dedication. “I personally offer thanks for the gift of all of you who are that precious gift that makes St. Francis of Assisi the most beloved church in New York City, truly a house of prayer, a place of peace, where all people are always welcome,” he concluded.

During the homily, New York Fire Department Chaplain Chris Keenan emphasized the importance of letting Jesus touch us and heal our infirmities. No matter what has happened to us in our lives, he said, we are always in God’s unconditional loving and healing embrace.

At the conclusion of the Mass, an invitation was extended to gather outside the firehouse on West 31st Street where Chris, after reflecting on Psalm 50 which evokes the mercy of God, invited people from all faiths to continue the walk all the way to ground zero. During the walk, there were stops at six firehouses and two police precincts. At each stop, there was a short reflection and a word of encouragement to both fire and police personnel.

One sign of the commitment of the friars to the walk this year was shown by the presence of seven friars and the four HNP postulants, who under the leadership of Ronald Pecci are experiencing many of the activities and ministries of the friars of HNP.

“The stops at the different firehouses and precincts gave me the opportunity to see face-to-face the pain that still exists among those men and women, and to remember that we, as Franciscans, can help to bring healing just by reading the names of their friends and family members who lost their lives doing what they do best, saving other people’s lives,” said Jerome.

It was not a surprise to see David Schlatter once again hauling by truck a large 2,800-pound bell all the way from Silver Spring, Md., where David is part of the formation team at Holy Name College. For him, hearing the bell toll brings sacredness to the space and time being honored on a day like Sept. 11. “Bells give expression to feelings that sometimes we cannot verbalize,” David said.

Although most firehouses look basically the same, every stop was unique in a way that one of the participants on the walk compared to the Stations of the Cross. Russell Murray, who also came from Silver Spring, and Paul Keenan, who is doing his internship at St. Francis of Assisi Church this year, were in awe when they came across the 347 picture tiles where the memory of the fallen ones will be remembered by those who visit the Firefighter Museum. The New York City Fire Museum is located in a renovated 1904 firehouse at 278 Spring St., in the SoHo district of Manhattan.

The last stop was the firehouse at ground zero. There, Detective McDonald thanked everyone for being once again part of this walk, which is now becoming a tradition.

McDonald’s journey began on a July evening 20 years ago, during a period of random violence citywide that roving gangs of menacing teenagers termed “wilding.” While questioning three boys, aged 13 to 15, near the lake in Central Park, the officer bent down to have a better look at what he thought might be a gun in the youngest boy’s sock. At that moment, the oldest of the three teens pulled out his pistol and fired three shots point blank into McDonald. One of the bullets shattered his spine, and since then he has been paralyzed from the neck down.

When Mychal Judge became a chaplain for the fire department, their paths crossed and Steve and Mychal became good friends. Together, they made a number of pilgrimages of healing and reconciliation to Northern Ireland. On October 2001, they had planned a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Because of their friendship, every year McDonald and a couple hundred people make the short trip from West 31st Street to the New York Fire Department memorial wall at engine 10 at ground zero.

Chris Keenan read Psalm 23 which reminded all that the Lord is our shepherd and that we shall not want for anything. Fire Department chaplain emeritus Everett Wabst, in his closing statement, reassured everyone one more time that Sept. 11 opened the doors to immortality to those who sacrificed their lives so others could live.