This reflection is part of a series by Holy Name Province’s partners-in-ministry. The previous was written by a former St Bonaventure University staff member. Here, a retired ship pilot writes about his connection to and his admiration for Mychal Judge, OFM, who died 15 years ago in New York City when the World Trade Center towers collapsed. The author and a police detective organized an event that has become an annual tribute to Mychal and others who died on Sept. 11, 2001.
I have been in the company of several great men in my life. One of them was Fr. Mychal Judge, OFM, the Franciscan priest stationed at St. Francis of Assisi Church in New York City, who died on Sept. 11, 2001.
Fr. Mychal was a chaplain of the Fire Department of New York when we met him at the home of Steven and Patti Ann McDonald. My son Timothy and their son, Conor, had become friends at the Latin School at Kellenberg High School in Uniondale, N.Y. One year, my son vacationed with the McDonalds and Fr. Mychal in Florida. I remember Tim coming home from the trip talking about how cool Fr. Mychal was. He said he was fun – that he went swimming with them, laughed a lot and “he got to wear sandals all the time.” Basically, Mychal acted like a kid with them.
When you were with Mychal, you always felt that you had his full attention. He always had a kind word or a bit of advice, and he would light up the room with his presence. He would take the leftovers from a meal to bring to the poor, always had dollar bills in his pocket to hand out to the homeless on his walk home. Lessons my son learned from him by example, not by preaching.
Spontaneous Acts of Love
I last saw Fr. Mychal at a Mass he celebrated on July 12, 2001, at the McDonald home. It was a yearly tradition to celebrate Steven’s survival after being shot as a young police officer in 1986. It was a beautiful Mass with an inspirational homily. Afterward, Mychal walked around chatting with all those who had come to the Mass. I remember him taking leftovers to bring to the hospital where he was going next to visit with the firefighters and their families who were injured in the Father’s Day fire in June 2001 in Astoria, Queens, N.Y.
I remember the conversation he had with Conor and Tim. Both would be playing in a football game that September – Conor for Chaminade High School, and Tim for Kellenberg. Conor asked if the friar would be at the game. “Of course,” he said, “but I like Tim so I’m not going to tell you who I’m rooting for.” Fr. Mychal walked away with a big smile, chuckling. Unfortunately, he never got to see that game.
The next time we saw Fr. Mychal was in the lower chapel of St Francis Church on West 31st Street – at his wake. There, I saw the mayor, chiefs of the fire department and police department, influential businessmen, firemen off the pile at Ground Zero covered with dust, parishioners from St. Francis, his family, the poor and people who Mychal had met daily. He made us all feel as if we were his friend – someone who he cared deeply about. He saw no boundaries. We were all God’s children.
The following year – in September 2002 – I got a call from Steven to ask if I wanted to meet him at St. Francis. We were going to pray outside the church near the room where Fr. Mychal lived. There were 25 to 30 friends gathered to mark this difficult first anniversary of his death and that of so many others. We prayed outside then started to retrace his path to Ground Zero, stopping along the way at firehouses on the route. It was a spontaneous act of love for a man we missed.
Walk of Remembrance
After that first walk – which has become known as the 9/11 Walk of Remembrance – it has been a passion of mine to work with Steven, members of the FDNY and NYPD, and those who knew or have learned about Father Mychal since 9/11.
Through the walk, I have met other Franciscans who I would like to call friends. Fr. Christopher Keenan, OFM, is our spiritual leader and celebrates the Mass at St. Francis on the Sunday before Sept. 11. Fr. Cassian Miles, OFM, who died in 2015, concelebrated in the early years. The pastors of St. Francis have always supported our walk. Fr. Jerome Massimino, OFM, and Fr. Andrew Reitz, OFM, have encouraged us to use the lower chapel since that first walk when we prayed out in the street. Our goal now is to have enough people to fill the upper church in future years.
The walk has now become a yearlong project. As Fr. Chris said to me recently, the walk has not taken on legs but wheels. We have gone on social media to explain why we walk. It is to remember and honor all those lost on 9/11 in the spirit of prayer and love and to trace the footsteps of the man who epitomized that and who selflessly stood and prayed for all those people that day. We have visited 60 fire companies and police precincts to tell the story of Fr. Mychal and the reason we walk. Some people ask why police precincts are involved when he was the fire chaplain. In Fr.Mychal’s words, “same church, different pews.”
Prayer and Healing
The walk begins most years with the rosary led by Steven and Patti Ann McDonald, followed by Mass in St. Francis of Assisi Church’s lower chapel, celebrated by Chris. The walk begins in front of the Firehouse E1 L24, across from St. Francis from which Fr. Mychal responded on Sept. 11 with members of that firehouse.
During the walk, we pray as we remember NYPD and FDNY members lost on 9-11 as we stop along Seventh Avenue on our way to St. Peter’s Church in lower Manhattan. This is where Father Mychal’s body was brought and laid on the altar when he was killed on that terrible Tuesday morning.
The pilgrims on this journey tell us that the walk is healing. I think it has continued because it is about prayer and remembrance and it comforts those who are left to carry on. Other people ask why. The walk is the best way to start a difficult week. It emulates 9/11 in many ways, because it brings together and friends to share stories, to talk about loved ones lost or their own story. But I feel it comforts us in a way that Fr. Mychal would have, and that is with prayer and love.
The walk has helped me personally to live my faith by action. God bless Fr. Mychal as he smiles down from heaven with all those lost on 9/11 and watches this tribute.
— John Bates is a retired ship pilot who worked in New York harbor for 36 years. He is married to MaryAnne and is the father to Erin and Tim. Bates, the grandfather to four girls – Brynn, JJ, Emme and Sloane – and is a lifelong parishioner at Maria Regina RC Church in Seaford, N.Y., where he serves as a lector.
- “Sept. 11 Observances Planned, Mychal Judge Remembered” — Aug. 29, 2015, HNP Today
- “Fr. Mychal Judge statue unveiled in East Rutherford” — June 18, 2015, NorthJersey.com
- “Christopher Keenan Honored by Fire Department” — May 23, 2015, HNP Today
- “Media Interest in Mychal Judge Grows as Anniversary Approaches” — Sept. 7, 2011, HNP Today