Chaplain’s Status Has Life After Death

ASSOCIATED PRESS

In his brown Franciscan robe or white firefighter’s helmet, Mychal Judge always seemed larger than life. Four months after becoming victim No. 00001 of the World Trade Center attack, Father Mike appears larger than death too.

The white-haired Fire Department chaplain has emerged from the twisted steel of the crumpled twin towers as a multipurpose icon, claimed as one of their own by constituents throughout the city where he once walked in leather sandals.

The Fire Department? New York’s Irish crowd? The brotherhood of Alcoholics Anonymous? Surely, Mike Judge was one of theirs.

The Catholic Church? And New York’s gay community? Just as surely, Mike Judge, a priest for 40 years, belonged to them.

“Mychal Judge’s heart was as big as New York, and there was room for everybody,” says Brendan Fay, a gay Irish activist and friend of the late priest. “Everybody belonged.”

There are more tangible signs of his new status: a stretch of West 31st Street was named for Judge, along with a Hudson River ferry. Pope John Paul II accepted the martyred chaplain’s fire helmet from a contingent of city firefighters in the Vatican.

Judge’s poster-sized portrait still stands inside the front door of Engine Co. 1/Ladder Co. 24, his local firehouse. The Advocate, a national gay magazine, put him on its cover as one of “our heroes.”

A book on his 68-year life is in the works, with talk of a possible television movie.

“He belonged to everybody, but each person thought he was theirs,” says Malachy McCourt, the best-selling author and a Judge confederate for nearly two decades.

“That was the beauty of the man,” McCourt continues. No one, he adds, says “one negative thing about him. And I’m saying, ‘C’mon! There must be something.’

“But there isn’t.”

What would Judge make of his ascent into the role of man for all seasons, of his praise from politicians and the pope?

“He’d be howling with laughter,” McCourt replies quickly. “And he would put a stop to it if he could.”

It was about 8:50 a.m. on Sept. 11 when word reached West 31st Street about the tragedy in lower Manhattan. The thick, black smoke was already billowing skyward. At Engine Co. 1/Ladder Co. 24, the firefighters climbed into their gear and headed downtown.

Across the street at the Church of St. Francis of Assisi, Mychal Judge did the same.

The trip from the firehouse to the friars’ residence is maybe two dozen steps. It was a trip that Father Mike--as he was known among both the homeless and the famous--made many times since becoming FDNY chaplain in 1992.

This morning, as thousands of New Yorkers ran for their lives toward midtown, Judge jumped in his Fire Department car. With firefighter Michael Weinberg at the wheel and the siren wailing, they sped downtown toward the World Trade Center.

He arrived at the burning 110-story towers, where Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani spotted him. “Pray for us,” the mayor recalls saying.

“I always do,” Judge replied.

The priest, a bottle of holy water in hand, went to work. Within minutes, he was tending to Danny Suhr, a 16-year Fire Department veteran killed by a body falling from the north tower.

Judge removed his helmet to begin the last rites. His prayers ended when he was mortally wounded by a falling chunk of debris.

As word of the terrorist attack spread, a colleague from St. Francis headed downtown--Father Brian Jordan, who had met Judge a quarter-century earlier on the campus of Siena College in Loudonville, N.Y.

It was Judge who had challenged Jordan about his vocation, inviting the college senior to become a Franciscan. “Forget about being an unhappy lawyer,” Judge told him. “Become a happy priest.”

Now, standing in his Franciscan robe with all hell breaking loose around him, Jordan heard that his mentor was gone.

“The firefighters saw my brown habit,” Jordan recalls. “And they came up to me and said, ‘Sorry about Father Mike.’ And then I heard that continuously--through the night, through the 12th and the 13th. . . . From firefighters, police officers, emergency service workers, civilians, volunteers.”

Five people carried Judge’s limp body from ground zero to the altar of a nearby church, where he was covered with a white sheet, his helmet and badge placed on his chest. Later, he was brought back to the firehouse on West 31st Street.

His death certificate listed him as victim No. 00001--the first official fatality of the World Trade Center attack.

It was the perfect exit for Judge, his friends agreed. But it was just the start of his second life, as one of his fellow priests observed at Judge’s funeral Mass.

“I stand in front of you,” Father Michael Duffy commented to much laughter, “and honestly feel that the homilist at Mother Teresa’s funeral had it easier than I do.”

Judge would have appreciated Duffy’s crack--they shared a dry Irish wit. When the Brooklyn-born Judge actually met Mother Teresa during one of her New York visits, he asked for spiritual advice, Jordan recalled.

“Pray at least two hours a day,” the saintly nun replied.

“Yeah, I will,” Judge replied. “But I gotta get to work, you know?”

A typical response from the atypical priest. Judge even composed his own prayer, a mix of piety and self-deprecation:

“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.”

His vanity was a subject of mirth to his friends: “The first priest I met who used hair spray,” Jordan recalls with a wry smile.

Even on Sept. 11, Duffy said in his eulogy, Judge removed his robe and sandals, put on his uniform--and then paused “to comb and spray his hair.”

He enjoyed the attention that went with his job as chaplain, embracing photographers as fervently as parishioners. While a parish priest in New Jersey, “we used to accuse him of paying The Bergen Record’s reporter to follow him around,” Duffy remembered.

Yet Judge didn’t disappear when the flash bulbs stopped. His loyalty was legendary, as was his generosity. He gave of both time and money; any gifts that came his way were quickly redistributed to those in need.

When police Officer Stephen McDonald was paralyzed by a thug’s bullet in 1986, Judge suddenly appeared. Over the years, he became a member of McDonald’s extended family, even accompanying the ex-cop on a pilgrimage to Lourdes.

When TWA Flight 800 went down in 1996, Judge became a familiar presence among the family members mourning the lost passengers. They became part of his ever-expanding parish.

At a memorial for Judge, a Long Island woman told of her brother’s death during the early days of the AIDS epidemic. The local priests refused to perform any service for the gay man. When Judge heard this, he handled the service himself.

It was one of his first forays into the gay community, but there would be more. When the archdiocese barred the gay Catholic group Dignity from its facilities, he helped arrange a temporary home at St. Francis for its AIDS ministry.

And when his friend Brendan Fay established a St. Patrick’s Day parade in Queens that permitted gays to march, Judge was among those walking in March 2000.

After Sept. 11, several of Judge’s friends stated publicly that the priest was gay--an issue of orientation rather than practice, given his vow of chastity. But like so much of his life, it wasn’t quite that simple.

“Father Judge was neither out nor closeted,” one friend told The Advocate, the national gay magazine. “He knew how to walk that fine line.”

At Judge’s Sept. 15 funeral, the many different people from the many different aspects of his life came together in a single place. More than 2,000 filled the church; hundreds more stood outside.

Fay remembers surveying the crowd with a measure of disbelief.

“People from the political right and left,” he recalled. “Conservatives, liberals. People who wouldn’t be caught dead in each other’s presence, sitting and sharing deep grief.”

So Mychal Judge is really gone. Yet for those who knew him, he can’t ever leave.

A copy of Judge’s prayer hangs above the desk of Father Jordan in his basement office at the friary. McCourt will be out--visiting John Jay College, stopping by the Irish consulate, or sitting in an AA meeting--and his friend’s visage will appear.

There are living testaments: when Fire Commissioner Thomas Von Essen’s son welcomed a baby boy on Oct. 1, the child was named Mason Judge to honor the priest. Another friend, Mychal McNicholas, changed the spelling of his name from Michael after the tragedy.

When Brendan Fay visits Madison Square Garden, he thinks of Judge. The peripatetic priest landed the Irish immigrant his first-ever tickets to an NBA game several years ago.

The next time Fay heads to the Garden, he’ll walk past the friary on 31st Street and take note of the street sign honoring his lost friend.

“It will be a good thing, not a trivial political thing,” Fay says. “It will be a reminder, a recall, and a challenge to be like him.”