'Saint of 9/11': Cleric's Message of Love Rises From the Twin Towers' Rubble

First responders carry Fr. Mychal Judge's body from the rubble of the World Trade Center towers (Photo by Shannon Stapleton)
 

By Patricia Jameson-Sammartano (First published in 2006)

Is it
too soon to see a movie about the horrendous occurrences of Sept. 11, 2001? Five years on, with many wounds still unhealed, that's a valid question. Reviews of theatrical releases such as "United 93" and "World Trade Center" have posed that very question. A check of the Internet Movie Database reveals three movies, with 31 "other results" listed pertaining to the events of 9/11.

Among these are "Saint of 9/11," a documentary about the life of Father Mychal Judge, the late chaplain of the Fire Department of New York. The film premiered during the Tribeca Film Festival in May, and has found new currency with the fifth anniversary of the attacks. Screening at Manhattan's IFC Film Center, as well as in selected theaters in major markets across the United States, "Saint of 9/11" is well worth a second viewing; in fact, there is not a more suitable movie to commemorate the tragedy of Sept. 11th.

Rather than reminding people of airplanes crashing into skyscrapers, this loving tribute celebrates the life of this remarkable Franciscan friar. The film uses the events of 9/11 to provide a dramatic backdrop to Judge's life, and death amid the skyscrapers' rubble. It artfully, perhaps even unconsciously, contrasts his unsung, profound, decades' long mission to affirm society's cast-offs and others seeking God's solace with the news media's unquestioning embrace of his sanctity within days of his death.

Using archival footage, interviews with friends of Judge's and a few politicians, and skillful voice-over by British actor Ian McKellan, the film begins with water imagery: sunrise over Manhattan, the Statue of Liberty, birds flying. McKellan recites what's become known as "Mychal's Prayer":

"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."

There is the famous photo of Father Mike, as he was known to the many who came to know and love him, in complete fire department regalia, laughing heartily. We hear author and raconteur Malachy McCourt musing, "He'd be vastly amused at the idea of being a saint." And we hear and see video of Judge saying, "I've always wondered what my last half hour on earth will be like." We soon find out.

The pace quickens with the sound of a radio broadcast, from local FM station WFUV's "City Folk Morning," voicing over scenes of Manhattan on a brilliantly sunny morning. Host Claudia Marshall conveys the forecast in folksy, dulcet tones — perfect weather for the scheduled mayoral electoral primary. Then her tone changes as she announces that "It is 8:51, and we are trying to sort out the details of something truly terrible that has happened this morning at the World Trade Center, a very large explosion — high up." The camera shifts to scenes of firemen climbing into bunker gear and racing to the scene of the devastation downtown from Engine 1/ Hook and Ladder 24, across the street from St. Francis of Assisi Church and Friary on West 31st Street, Judge's home. It is the morning of Sept. 11, and Judge rushes to the scene, as he later says, "to be with my men."

'The city is the most extraordinary place.'

The film then cuts away to Malachy McCourt, who describes flying into Newark Airport with his wife at 8:50 a.m. with his wife, Diana. She asks "Does the World Trade Center always pollute like that?" and we are shown the columns of smoke as the towers burned. Video reveals Judge at the site, his lips moving almost imperceptibly, seemingly praying, looking anxious, then ministering to firefighters moments before falling debris takes his life. The film shows the iconic photograph of Judge being carried from the wreckage by five first responders, "... Mychal limp and serene, at the same time, in their arms. You know it reminded me a lot of the Pieta," said an unidentified voice.

Friend and former Franciscan Brian Carroll captures Judge's attitude to his calling, noting, "This was how Mychal would have prayed to have one of the last days of his life transpire. … This was one of the most horrific moments in American history. He would have been nowhere else on the face of the earth but with all those folks. Mychal (in his own mind) wasn't a hero on 9/11. He was doing his job." A firefighter describes Judge as "one of the guys," and another calls him "a saint." A fire officer said: "He was our spiritual leader, but he was our buddy too."

Another transition in the film introduces Irish AIDS Outreach founder and film co-producer Brendan Fay, who narrates how Judge sent him a box of books a month before his death, including "prayer books, lectionary, books on theology," with a note that read, "I want you to have these before I go to my isle in heaven." Then, the film cuts away to Keshcarrigan, County Leitrim, which Judge's parents departed en route to a new life in America. As a memorial and peace park is dedicated to Judge, the camera shows the friar's twin sister, Dymphna, born two days after him. A woman sings Stephen Foster's anthem "Hard Times" for the crowd. In a truly exalting bit of filmmaking, backed by her beautiful voice, the camera cuts away to shots of nearby hills and glens, underscoring the beauty of what the immigrants left behind.

Judge was born Robert Emmet Judge on May 11, 1933, on Dean Street, in Brooklyn, named after a famed Irish revolutionary. Their father died when he and Dymphna were six. Father Christopher Keenan, the current Roman Catholic chaplain of the FDNY and a fellow Franciscan, told those at Keshcarrigan that Mychal commented "he was never afraid of death as he'd finally meet his father. … His only regret in life was he never called anyone father, never called anyone 'Dad.'"

After his father died, the family took boarders into their Brooklyn Heights home, another common Irish immigrant custom in Brooklyn in the 1930s. "Brooklyn gave him a view of humanity," said Carroll. McKellen quotes Judge saying he had to walk the Brooklyn Bridge, his gateway to New York, at least once a week, occasionally walking from the friary to Brooklyn's south shore, more than a dozen miles, helping flesh out a picture of a reflective man, yet one with a restless intellect and tremendous energy. "The city is the most extraordinary place," Judge said, in voice-over by McKellen, describing its kaleidoscope of sights, sounds, energy and diversity. Judge's words in the film are drawn from the priest's journals, letters, interviews and homilies.

In 1948, Judge left Brooklyn for the seminary. Taking the name Fallon Michael, a combination of his mother's surname and his father's name, he became a Franciscan friar.

His life of service included parish work in West Milford, N.J.; work with Siena College in Loudonville, N.Y.; and at St. Francis of Assisi, the base for his ministry to the homeless, drug addicts, and AIDS patients. After moving to St. Francis, he took the name Mychal, Fay told WGT in a phone interview. He worked with Dignity, a group ministering to the Catholic gay community that the Church eventually evicted from its facilities, and he consoled families assembled on Long Island in July 1996, after TWA Flight 800 crashed into the Atlantic Ocean.

'We're all Irish, and we all want the brutality to stop.'

The isolation Judge felt growing up without his father carried into many areas of his life. "I think he took God as father, and his searching for the lost father, as one and the same search," said friend and former Jesuit John McNeill. "And it gave a tremendous drive to his spiritual life." Indeed, Judge was a healer, but a wounded one: By 1978, he had joined Alcoholics Anonymous.

About eight years later, while ministering to AIDS patients, he acknowledged his homosexuality, although he was discreet about his orientation. With Irish street-smarts, he kept that part of his identity separate from his FDNY ministry, though then-Fire Commissioner Von Essen noted he and Judge talked about it "a lot." Said Von Essen, "I never had the sense that he was in any way ashamed of being gay." It was about this time, Fay told WGT, that Judge changed the spelling of his name to Mychal, ostensibly to differentiate himself from the various Michaels at St. Francis, but also, said Fay, "to further define himself."

Judge met New York Police Department Detective Stephen McDonald soon after McDonald was shot by a teen in 1986. McDonald was made a quadriplegic by the shooting; Father Mike became his spiritual guide. McDonald would later forgive his assailant, and while this is not shown in the movie, it was under Judge's guidance that the detective gained this grace. McDonald traveled with him to Northern Ireland in 1998 in search of peace. The two men brought this nonviolent spirit to Belfast and Drumcree shortly after the Omagh bombings. They returned in 2000 for another reconciliation visit. "We're all Irish, and we all want the brutality to stop," Judge said in a speech before an audience of both Protestant and Catholics.

Among the most poignant segments of this very poignant project was the film's description of Judge ministering to gay AIDS patients, most of whom had felt rejected by the Roman Catholic Church. He overcame the wariness of these men, who were mistrustful, even hostile at the sight of this man in a uniform of the Church. He did so, without even a word of introduction, by massaging their feet with holy oil. Mary Lanning, an AIDS caregiver featured in the movie, told an audience for the film in May, through tears, that she loved the movie because, "That's my Mychal."

Those in attendance at IFC were not as emotional, but there were sniffles and tears when the documentary described the priest picking up a sick man after giving him Communion, holding and rocking him, when even hospital personnel, who should have known better, were pushing in meals from the hall. The audience evinced similar reactions to the film's scenes depicting Judge ministering after the crash of Flight 800 and the havoc at the World Trade Center.

The movie's cinematography, by Christoper Landy, adroitly underscores the power of Judge's own words, while capturing the vitality, the far-ranging emotional and physical travel, and ultimately the inspiration of the friar's life. Particularly arresting are close-ups of Judge's hands, described as huge, like a laborer's; of the church grounds at Canterbury, England; Leitrim's countryside; his New Jersey parish; the ocean at Smith Point; and the vibrant scenes of Manhattan.

Kudos as well go to Glenn Holsten for his direction of this riveting, ultimately comforting window into Judge's life, and to composer Michael Aharon for his understated, uplifting, never maudlin, score, which seamlessly worked with the visuals to evoke the pathos, earnestness and, ultimately, glory of Judge's life. Equality Forum, working to advance national and international gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) civil rights, produced the picture, budgeted at $350,000, and deserves our thanks.

This extraordinary film does leave a few things to desire, however. One surprising deficiency is the lack of Irish music in the soundtrack. Much is made of Judge's love of Irish ballads, and friends remark several times that he loved to sing, although he had questionable vocal talent. As well, at times we found ourselves unable to differentiate between Judge's own words and those of the narrator.

Father Mychal Judge was courageous in the face of adversity, facing his demons and conquering them through prayer and God's grace. "Mychal was not one to judge," said one witness. "He had judged himself enough, and then found freedom." Father Judge's commitment to social justice opened his heart to all. McNeill described Judge's outreach this way: "Not seeking anything for himself, but seeking to share God's love with the person he's talking to."

What is most sublime about the film was its display of the affirmative power of this wounded healer, along with his death — and loss to us — in the carnage of 9/11. "I couldn't help but notice (Judge) had an earring," said a woman's voice earlier in the film. Later the woman, Ballyshannon, County Donegal-based Sister of Mercy Stephanie Flaherty, noted "Mike loved the hell out of every one of us because lots of us were experiencing a sort of hell."

"Saint of 9/11" makes it abundantly clear that Mychal Judge is indeed a saint for our time.

More Comments on Mychal Judge

"(Mychal Judge) understood displacement. Being of an Irish American background, he was in the finest tradition of our people in understanding what immigration was about, what being the underdog was all about, what being a person in need of help was all about." — Brian O'Dwyer, Attorney, Manhattan

"One night he suggested that we would come to an open (AA) meeting with him. Oh, and we were all excited about this. What we observed that night, they just converged on him like flies to honey. We just thought that the sharing and the daring to share was absolutely wonderful. You could absolutely feel the heeling manifest in him and in ourselves." — Sister Stephanie Flaherty, Ballyshannon, County Donegal

"He lit up the White House as he lit up every place he ever found himself." —U.S. Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton

"He had that direct line to God, and therefore the Church couldn't get in his way." — former Jesuit priest John McNeill

Mychal Judge on Coping With Loss

Sometimes in life when we lose someone we love and we don't know what to do, we should just pray and worship: Thank you, Lord, for their lives, for their love, creativity, for their friendship, their good days and bad, for their happiness, for their anger, for everything they've brought into our lives. These are things we should say about each other always. If we did, life wouldn't be half bad. I hope someday that someone says things nicely about me as I said about them through the years. I love you, so just love each other the best you can. ...

 

With additional reporting by WGT Producer Gerry Regan.

This feature was produced by Joe Gannon and Gerry Regan, and edited by Regan.

Copyright © 2006 by GAR Media LLC. This article may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior permission from the author. Direct questions about permissions to permissions@garmedia.com.

Read more about Mychal Judge in: Father Mychal Judge: An Authentic American Hero by Michael Ford. (Click on title to buy it at Amazon.com)

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Founding Member
Comment by Nollaig 2016 on May 11, 2014 at 4:51am

On May 11, 1933, Father Mychal Judge was born in New York City to County Leitrim natives. The Franciscan friar became chaplain to the Fire Department of New York, and died at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.

Comment by Gerry Regan on May 12, 2014 at 7:29am
Comment by Jean Sullivan Cardinal on September 16, 2014 at 2:11pm

I remember that picture so vividly.  Beautiful article.

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