Today is September 11, 2011 and I, like most older Americans, am reflecting upon the tenth anniversary of the Great American Tragedy. It’s a well-worn question by now of “Where were you when you heard about the World Trade Center in New York”? I was at home, talking with a fellow contractor who was preparing to install wallpaper for us. I stepped into my van and started the engine. The radio was tuned to my favorite radio station, WQSR in Baltimore, Steve Rouse and his morning gang mixed oldies from the 60’s and 70’s with chatter and little comedy bits. Just as the radio came alive I heard Steve say that they just received a report that an explosion of some sort happened at the World Trade Center. My fist reaction was, “Geez Steve. That’s not something to joke about”. Within a few seconds I realized they weren’t joking. I ran back into the house to turn on the TV for more details. The fellow doing the wallpaper and I sat transfixed on the screen and wondered what it possibly could be. I remembered a previous attempt at bombing the building years ago. Close-ups of the gaping hole near the top of the North Tower had reporters speculating that perhaps a small plane had gone off course and hit the building, although the hole seemed much too large for such an impact.
In the midst of all this conjecture, suddenly the South Tower exploded in a giant fireball a few floors lower than the first hit. At that point TV cameras were trained on multiple angles of the Trade Center and several had picked up a Boeing 676 from United Airlines striking the South Tower. We all know the remaining sequence of events and I need not belabor them here.
Despite the thousands of lives that were lost in that event, I was unaware of knowing anyone who might have been part of it. Frankly, I was more concerned about the strike on the Pentagon. Two of my cousins were in the military and had connections with the Pentagon over the years. A few phone calls put my mind to rest about any direct connection that day. Then about a day or so after 9/11, the human stories of the people involved started to make their way to the airwaves. Listed officially as the first causality of the attack was Father Mychal Judge, OFM. The name itself didn’t connect, but the letters “OFM” certainly did.
The youngest of my father’s 5 brothers was given the name Robert. Their mother died when Robert was only 10 years old. My grandfather sent both Robert and Cornelius, age 13, to live with his sisters on High Street in Coaldale. Those three women were really the only mothers either of them ever had. Robert attended St. Mary’s School through high school graduation in 1934. His aunts wanted him to continue his education and so he was accepted to St. Bonaventure College. While there, Robert announced that he planned to become a priest…specifically a Franciscan Friar and part of the Order of Friars Minor (OFM).
I never had to ask why my parents decided to name me Robert in 1946. A good Irish family could have no better pride than to have a son become a priest, and that was certainly the case with “Father Bob”. Perhaps they were hoping that I would follow in his footsteps. I put “Father Bob” in quotation marks because that was how all of the family and friends in town referred to him. When he was ordained, he took the name “Bernard” . I’m not sure if that was his choice or something that was expected in the Order. Father Bob had various assignments over the years. He started in New York City at their main Friary in Manhattan and then journeyed to Boston, and several parishes in northern New Jersey. Eventually he went back to the complex of Saint Francis of Assisi on West 31st Street in Lower Manhattan. Over the years I had seen him many times, both happy and sad. He baptized me at St. Mary’s in Coaldale; married Gale and me on Long Island; and baptized two of my three daughters in St. Mary’s. Of course he was also there as we laid to rest many of the Sharpe family, including the three women who raised and nurtured him on High Street, his father, and two of his brothers.
The last time I saw Father Bob was at a St. Mary’s School reunion in 1984. My father had told me he was having several medical problems over the previous few years and that was the reason he was unable to baptize my youngest daughter. He had apparently regained some strength after a few operations and had planned a vacation to Florida to visit a family he had known from his years in New Jersey. He was scheduled to leave on August 17, 1986 when one of the friars found him dead in his room after suffering a massive heart attack.
Dad called me that afternoon to break the news. I packed and drove up from my home in Maryland to meet the family in Coaldale. There weren’t many family members left at that point. Dad and Uncle Cornie; along with Mom and his sister-in-law Florence piled into Dad’s midsize Chrysler for the drive to New York. I was the designated driver and the five of us in a small car, combined with the constant talking from Mom and Aunt Florence, made for a very stressful trip through Jersey. We were in the metro area around afternoon rush hour and I was trying my best to weave through the traffic, while getting conflicting directions from four people who had no idea where we were. Finally I saw the church on 31st Street and pulled into a small lot on the side. It was a tremendous relief to get out of that car, even with the noise and car fumes of the city all around.
We all went into the Friary and soon were met by the main pastor of the church. He asked the “adults” to follow him to his office to go over the paperwork and answer some questions. I was 40 years old then and would probably meet the definition of “adult”, but after that trip I just wanted to sit in a soft chair in a quiet room.
“Hi There ! You must be Father Bernard’s namesake. He’s told me a lot about you. My name is Father Mike”.
Hi Father Mike. My name is Bob Sharpe. You know that was Bernard’s given name?”
“Sure I do. He was a kind and gentle Irishman and a credit to our heritage”.
“So you’re Irish too”?
“Yep….my parents came over many years ago. So how was your trip into the city”?
“Harrowing, to say the least. The four of them plus city traffic has me exhausted”.
“Might I interest you in a sandwich or something from the kitchen”?
I was starved and had no idea how long they would be meeting.
“Follow me Bob. We’ll see what we can dig up from the fridge”.
Father Mike pulled out several packages of cold cuts; and couple of different cheeses and breads; and the usual condiments. We spent the next few minutes assembling sandwiches that would make Dagwood Bumstead envious.
“Something cold to drink, Bob? We have soft drinks, ice tea, and beer”.
“Our vows were about poverty, chastity, and obedience….no mention about beer in that list”.
“Ok….I’d love a cold one. Will you join me”?
“No…I’ve got to stay away from the brew. Ice tea works for me”.
We sat down at a small kitchen table and exchanged stories about my uncle for about an hour. He popped another beer for me and also found some pretzels in the pantry. The rest of the family finally returned and found us sitting there enjoying the stories. One question I asked Father Mike in the course of our talk was, “What’s ‘Fudnee’?”
“Yea, that pin on your cassock. FDNY…Fudnee”.
Mike had a good laugh. “That stands for Fire Department New York”.
“You’re a fireman”?
“Yes…Chaplain for several fire houses here in Lower Manhattan”.
The family left the rectory and went to a hotel across the street where they had reserved 2 rooms for us. The following day was the Requiem Mass and the burial at their cemetery in New Jersey. We got back to our car by early afternoon and set off for the trip back to Coaldale.
Seeing this photograph on TV a few days after 9/11 suddenly hit me like a baseball bat from behind. I hadn’t thought about the events surrounding my uncle’s death until I started to connect the location of the Trade Center with St. Francis and FDNY. Over the next few months stories about the life and times of Mychal Judge came in from all over. He had met with mayors, US presidents, dignitaries from around the world. The impression he left with them and the concern he showed for them was no greater than the concern he had for the hungry, homeless, AIDS infected, street people he ministered to every day. He did not have a major impact on my life between the time I met him and the time he died. He was simply there to nourish me physically and spiritually at a time when I needed both. It became less about losing an uncle and more about celebrating the life that Father Bob had led. I somehow pictured my uncle as the stereotype monk who spent most of his day praying behind closed doors…oblivious to the outside world. I quickly learned that their mission is a continual, encompassing outreach to the poor, needy, and sick in the city. They open a breadline every day at the church where people are not asked how deep are their needs or how many times they may have gone through the line. I was proud to know that this was how my uncle spent his time there. As was the case with Father Mike, Father Bob was not one to lecture on his accomplishments.
Even now I don’t look at my hour with Father Mike as a big event. He was not famous when I met him and he certainly never gave that impression to me. We were just two guys talking about a man we both loved and respected. He was a common man with an uncommon ability to show compassion and concern for everyone he met, no matter how rich or poor…famous or unknown. If you do a Google search online with his name, you’ll get over 188,000 hits. If he hadn’t died in the Towers collapse, you probably would get 188 hits at best. Those who knew him much better than I did have often mentioned that he would be quite amused by this notoriety.
“When I joined the Franciscans I did so because there was a job to be done. That’s all I’m doing…my job. It’s no different than every firefighter or cop in the city. Just helping where I can”.
I recently saw a YouTube of Father Mychal at the North Tower, just after the South Tower had been hit. He paced a bit…then stopped and looked…then paced some more. Not really looking at anything in particular and apparently talking to himself because his lips are moving. It wasn’t like him to not make eye contact and go about reassuring his men. Apparently he realized that this was to a day like no other. Last Rites would be his duty, rather than aid and comfort.
In the following months after 9/11, much had been said about Mychal Judge and I’m not going to try to match the eloquence of others but just pass along a few comments I heard. One of the standing jokes around the rectory was that when Mychal went out for a walk on a cold winter’s night, “Well, that’s the last time we’ll see that overcoat”. Invariably, he would run across someone on the street that needed it more than he did. At his funeral mass, a eulogy was given by one of his close friends in the rectory. He said that when Mychal realized that he could not possibly be there to give Last Rites and console all his firefighters who would perish that day, he did the next best thing and made sure he was there in heaven to welcome them. As I said earlier, he was listed as the first official death that day.
A month later, a memorial service was held for him and one of the speakers was Malachy McCourt. Malachy was born in Brooklyn, but raised in Ireland until the age of 20. Notable for him are several books, including History of Ireland, which I have read and very much enjoyed. For fans of the movie The Molly Maguires, Malachy was the owner of the Emerald House Tavern. Also he is the brother of Frank McCourt; famous for writing Angela’s Ashes. Malachy’s story goes….
Father Mike arrives in heaven and St. Peter asks him what he would like to do in paradise. Mike says he likes working with the sick, hungry and homeless, but Peter says they have no such issues in heaven. Mike asks about fires because he worked with the fire department. Peter says the only fires he knows about are very far below them and that these fires are eternal and untended. When Mike asks why they are untended, Peter tells him that all the firefighters are here in heaven. St. Peter’s final admonishment to Father Mychal is, “And don’t you go telling them about it either. They’ll all want to go down there to try putting them out”!
Today’s remembrances of 9/11 focused mostly on 3000 lives lost in the tragedies, but as one person had mentioned…thanks to those First Responders over 20,000 lives were saved. The other issue mostly overlooked is the continuing suffering and death of the men and women who braved “The Pile” in hopes of rescuing or reclaiming those lost, only to now suffer from the toxic dust and fumes there.
Watching pictures and video clips of Father Mychal today was sad…yet filled with hope that in what seems to be an increasingly callous world where people are focused on ‘What’s in it for me”, there are still are many “Father Mikes” out there.
I’m still glad that back in 1986 I asked him, “What’s Fudnee”?