"Prior to September 11th we were accustomed to look at the Twin Towers as the symbol of America’s strength and power in the world of trade, commerce and finance. But as those buildings turned to dust before our eyes, we came to look to each other to see where our true strength and power lie. Our true strength was in all those acts of compassion, those deeds of generosity and self-sacrifice that were performed that day and in the days, weeks and months afterward.”
– Fr Kevin Madigan
WE WILL NEVER FORGET
The World Trade Center cast a shadow over the Church of St Peter’s, a street away. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 profoundly affected our parish and without a doubt made us stronger and more connected. Here is an account of how we opened our home and hearts at our three places of worship and how faith helped to resurrect downtown in New York City after the terrorist attacks on 9/11.
ST PETER’S CHURCH AND 9/11 TIMELINE
At 8:45am, the impact of the first plane hit the first World Trade Center and shook St Peter’s Church with a violence that caused the parish secretary, Patricia Ruggiero, to scream. She ran outside and took a look at the enormous gash surrounded by flames and billowing smoke. Rushing back inside she called out to the pastor, Reverend Kevin Madigan, that the plane had hit the building. Fr Madigan looked out the window and saw the almost instantaneous response of fire engines and ambulances, and he hurried out to find out where the wounded were. At 9:03am, Fr Madigan was speaking with the police when the second plane crashed into the South Tower. Debris blew everywhere from the second impact; many larger pieces were on fire.
“I remember seeing a wheel of the plane fly over my head”, Fr Madigan told American Catholic Magazine.
Fr Madigan rushed back to St. Peter’s to make sure the staff got to safety and then returned to the street. He met the Assistant Fire Chaplain and started walking southbound on Church Street when the South Tower began to collapse at 9:59am. Thinking quickly, Fr Madigan led the assistant chaplain down into the nearby subway station where they took temporary shelter with transit police officers and emerged safely after some of the dust had settled.
When Fr Madigan returned to St Peter’s, he found out the landing gear of one of the airplanes had pierced the roof.
STAGING GROUND FOR 9/11 RESCUE AND RECOVERY
Roman Catholics were the most represented faith group of those lost in the attacks. The parish can’t be certain of all the members of the parish who were lost, since many don’t register but we do know that a lector at St Peter’s and a parishioner at the mission of St Joseph’s Chapel were killed on that day. After 9/11 far fewer were coming to weekday morning and lunch hour Masses because the roughly 50,000 workers in the towers had to work in new locations
During these operations, Fr Madigan celebrated Mass, heard Confession and provided pastoral care to rescue workers and those allowed to enter the area. The church was open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week for the workers until the end of October 2001 when martial law was lifted and workers returned to work downtown.
The doors of St Peter’s stayed open to America’s heroes, and the church transformed into a relief supply station. "We were the first place they were bringing all the emergency equipment. Everything was in disarray," Fr Kevin Madigan stated. "Supplies were piled six feet high all over the pews, bandages, gas masks, boots, hoses and cans of food for the workers and the volunteers, many of whom were sleeping in the pews on bedrolls."
FATHER MYCHAL JUDGE
Father Mychal Judge OFM, the beloved chaplain of the New York Fire Department, was early to the scene of the disaster, giving absolution and prayers for the wounded and dying. Late that morning, he was in the North Tower lobby surrounded by rescue workers when the South Tower collapsed. The force of the building falling on itself blew cement dust and debris at speeds estimated to be 100mph. The impact of the implosion was so violent that parts of the compromised North Tower building fell. Obscured by the cloud of dust, it was only after the incident that the men nearby saw that Fr Judge had been struck down and killed. Fr Kevin M. Smith, another fire chaplain from Patchogue, NY blessed the body on curb. Eventually his body was carried by two firemen, an FDNY medical technician, a police lieutenant and a civilian bystander into St. Peter’s and laid in front of the altar. Fr Fussner, a priest at St. Peter’s Church noticed that Fr. Judge’s neck was swollen and appeared to be broken. Resting on the marble, Fr Judge’s body was covered in a white cloth with a fresh stole from sacristy on top and his chaplain’s badge and helmet resting on his chest. Fr Fussner added that the firemen pulled two of the candles close to either side of his body and a Franciscan friar later pointed out that the resulting pose resembled a bas-relief sculpture of Christ immediately behind the body. At around 2pm, two Franciscan friars from Fr Judge’s residence carried his body to a fire station across from his residence.
Fr. Mychal gave the following sermon at a Mass for New York City Firefighters at Engine 73, Ladder 42, Bronx, NY on September 10, 2001:
You do what God has called you to do. You get on that ring, you go out and do the job. No matter how big the call, no matter how small, you have no idea of what God is calling you to, but God needs you. He needs me. He needs all of us. God needs us to keep supporting each other, to be kind to each other, to love each other.
We love this job, we all do. What a blessing it is! It’s a difficult, difficult job, but God calls you to do it, and indeed, He gives you a love for it so that a difficult job will be well done.
Isn’t God wonderful?! Isn’t He good to you, to each one of you, and to me? Turn to God each day -- put your faith, your trust, your hope and your life in His hands. He’ll take care of you, and you’ll have a good life. And this firehouse will be a great blessing to this neighborhood and to this city. Amen.
WORLD TRADE CENTER CROSS
Two days after the 9-11 attacks, Ground Zero looked and felt like hell on earth. The ground was scorched, the air held the odor of incinerated building material and felt heavy with the weight of thousands of departed souls. Long shadows of autumn sun and lights erected to illuminate the wreckage gave the area an amber glow. Police, firemen, first responders and many volunteers began to search the rubble for a few survivors and scarce remains. Many of the men who flocked to the site to volunteer were experienced hands that knew how to cut steel and move rubble so the search could continue and the area cleared.
(Frank Sileccia found the World Trade Center Cross)
A volunteer construction worker named Frank Silecchia discovered the cross in a carved out area of the pile in the lower core of Building 6. There he spotted a cross made of steel standing upright. Fused to one side of the cross was large piece of melted metal that resembled a rumpled cloth which brought to mind the cross and shroud of resurrected Christ. Frank Silecchia fell to his knees as did many who came to see it later. Firefighter John Picarello described what he saw in a story published by Christian Broadcast News: “Just the way the sun shone down…it looked like an amphitheater with benches.” Believers and non-believers came and bowed their heads or knelt. Many of them came back again and again over the course of eight months to reflect, worship and hope. Mayor Giuliani remarked that the cross, “kept a lot of people going”, especially those directly involved in the recovery efforts.
Ten days after the cross was found, Frank Silecchia took Fr Brian Jordan, OFM, a Franciscan priest, to see what he thought was a revelation: that God had not abandoned us. Fr Jordan saw it as a sign. Some time later the men were concerned that in the reconstruction efforts the cross might be taken away to a storage facility or destroyed, so Fr Jordan contacted the mayor’s office. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani replied quickly that, ‘we will keep that cross as a reminder of God’s love for all of us’.
Fr Jordan then reached out to Fr Madigan who agreed to host the cross. In October 2006, a group of about 150 workers from the site, relatives of those killed in the attack and onlookers watched over as volunteer workers labored to move the 6,000-lb steel cross three streets and set it down outdoors on the side of the Church at Barclay and Church streets. People from all over the world and all faiths came to see the cross. In 2011, the relic, borne of the terrible events of 9-11, was lifted by a crane, loaded onto a truck and taken to its current location at the 9/11 Memorial Museum.
On August 11, 2011, a new custom cross was installed to stand in the same place on the side of St. Peter’s. The modern sculpture commissioned by the Archdiocese of New York, was made by artist Jon Krawczyk. Crafted in Malibu, California, the cross was transported through sixteen states to reach New York. On the journey, many stopped the artist to inquire about the cross and share a moment of reflection over the events of 9-11. The “Tribute Cross”, as it is now called, represents the resurrection of the neighborhood.
ST JOSEPH’S CHAPEL BECAME A FEMA COMMAND STATION
On September 11, the cloud of dust and ash from the imploding World Trade Center towers also engulfed St Joseph’s Chapel. During the week of the disaster, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) designated the chapel as a command station. The Chapel and its furnishings were a great help to the rescue effort and even altar cloths were used as temporary bandages. Following the rescue operations, the chapel became a temporary sanctuary where construction workers, police offers and firefighters could come to eat, email their families, talk with spiritual counselors and rest from the physically, emotionally and spiritually exhausting work at Ground Zero. The priests of St. Joseph’s continued to celebrate Mass in a gym nearby..
After opening her arms to so many, the chapel interior suffered extensive damage. The pulpit, pews and chairs, which were moved outside, were destroyed in a rainstorm.
After a degree of normalcy resumed in the downtown Battery Park City neighborhood, the idea for a Catholic Memorial was brought up in discussions about the need for a renovation. The initial thought was to express the journey of grief and healing the parish had taken as a faith community. But as we clarified our vision through discussion and prayer, we determined to create a memorial that would respond in a broader way to the event from a Catholic perspective. The memorial also affirmed our belief that life is stronger than death and love is stronger than hate.
Fundraising commenced and the Mission of St Joseph’s Chapel received the support of Cardinal Edward M. Egan and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. In a letter, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani wrote, “St Joseph’s Chapel in Battery Park City is creating a Catholic Memorial at Ground Zero to honor those who were lost, and pay tribute to those who responded with such heroism and bravery in the face of mortal danger.” (Read full letters written by Cardinal Egan, Mayor Giuliani and Fr Madigan.)
Fr Madigan and a committee of parish leaders commissioned artwork to honor the heroes of 9/11 for “their bravery, sacrifice and love.” (Details about Catholic Memorial artwork.)
In May 2005, Cardinal Edward M. Egan held a ceremony to bless the refurbished St Joseph’s Chapel. Cardinal Egan remarked that, “the memorial affirms the presence of God in a place that has tested the faith of many.” The completed Catholic Memorial at Ground Zero honors those who died, those who performed heroic and selfless acts on that day, and all of us who survived to bear witness. The memorial compliments the 9-11 National Memorial and gives visitors an opportunity for prayer and reflection in a quiet sanctuary.
OUR LADY OF THE ROSARY REACHES OUT TO BRETHREN
After September 11, 2001, Our Lady of the Rosary held a memorial service for the sixty-seven British and twenty-four Canadian citizens who died in the World Trade Center attack. The church kept its doors open and, for seven Sundays, hosted the services of Trinity Episcopal Church. Trinity had to shut its doors until they were assured the historic building was structurally sound. Two months later when Trinity held a ceremony at their reopening, they thanked
Fr Peter Meehan, the pastor of Our Lady of the Rosary and Seton Shrine, for the generosity.
THE FIRST ATTACK IN 1993
February 26, 1993, a truck loaded with bombs, parked in a public garage below the North Tower of the World Trade Center and exploded. Terrorists set of the powerful homemade bomb by way of a twenty-foot fuse. The blast killed six innocent civilians. The bomb was powerful enough to create a 200 by 100 foot hole in the building. Approximately a thousand office workers suffered smoke inhalation injuries. One hundred and twenty four of those injured were rescue personnel. Seventeen kindergarteners were trapped when the electrical power line was knocked out and one woman in labor was airlifted out of the area to a hospital.
The terrorists intended for the North Tower to come crashing down and topple the South Tower. Seven men have been convicted for their role in the attack but only six have been caught.
Many have forgotten the first truck bombing of the World Trade Center in the wake of 9/11. A son of a victim in the attacks, Stephen Knapp Jr., is quoted in the New York Times: “It started on Feb. 26, it played out on 9/11, and it is still going on now.”
Our Parish has not forgotten. Every February, the families and friends of people who died and those who were injured, hold a memorial Mass at St. Peter’s Church.