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Special Report

Church respond with prayer, assistance

New York

What do people do when the world is collapsing into a carpet of glass shards, bricks and metal? As a specter that some compared to Dante’s Inferno, others to the Apocalypse, reigned across this city’s financial district last week, many, perhaps most, turned to prayer.

While thousands went to church, many suimply dropped to their knees on the sidewalks of New York, watching in disbelief as workers jumped from the fiery heat of the melting twin towers of the World Trace Center. An act of monumental terror whose victims might remain nameless and numberless forever brought New Yorkers and those around the nation to their knees on the day that many already call 911.

For the church it was the worst of times, which some compared to a battlefield, and which others likened to -- if not the best of times -- certainly a moment when much of the city and region focused its attention on God and on love of neighbor. “People are turning to their churchs,” said Scott Stepp, coordinator of public affairs and development for Catholic Charities of the Rockeville Centre, N.Y., diocese. “The church provides the place for people to come together in this tragedy.”

U.S. Catholic bishops, as well as Protestant, Jewish and Muslim leaders, called for prayer, while throughout the country, people came to churches, synagogues and mosques. News programs ran listings of scheduled prayer services. Virtually every Catholic church in the United States scheduleda special service Sept. 11 or 12, or opened for private prayers.

Mourning losses

Across the New York region, churches mobilized to aid the shocked and the suffering. And Catholic leaders were not only consoling the suffering. They were mourning their own losses as well.

Within minutes after the first hijacked American Airlines jetliner slapped its payload against the World Trade Center’s north tower, the New York Fire Department mobilized hundreds of firfighters from Lower Manhattan to be joined by units from across the five boroughs. Amongt the first to arrive -- and soon to be confirmed dead -- was the New York Fire Department chaplain, Franciscan Fr. Mychal Judge, 68. Judge died under falling debris as he prayed and ministered to a fall fireman -- one of more than 300 firefighters who reportedly perished, as first the south tower and then the north collapsed.

As Judge lay dying, New York’s Cardinal Edward Egan was administering the last rites to the gravely injured at St. Vincent’s Hospital in lower Manhattan. The hospital cared for more than 300 of those injured. At Chelsea Pier, not far from where the towers collapsed and where a medial triage unit was set up, local priests also anointed the fallen and brought pastoral support.

Later, reports confirmed that Fr. Francis E. Grogan, a priest of the Congregation of the Holy Corss, was a passenger on United Airline Flight 175, the second plane to strike the World Trade Center.

The Franciscan Friars of the Atonement at Garrison, N.Y. -- 60 miles north of the tragedy -- commenced a 30-day bigil, opening Pilgrim Hall for prayer and meditation 24 hours a day. They also provided a cloth pall on which people could inscribe the names of loved ones who have died.

“A lot of people all over the world live with, and die by, violence every day,” said Atonement Fr. James Gardiner, who directs Graymoor’s Spiritual Life Center in Garrison. “It’s never come quite this close to us before.” As casualties mount and numbers become names of loved ones, colleagues and neighbors, “we can only pray with one another for an end to violence in all its manifestations, for peace of mind and heart for all who have suffered so unjustly, and for tender mercies for all whom we must now commit to God’s care.”

Catholics in New Jersey -- many of whom witnessed the destruction of the twin towers from bedroom and office communities across the Hudson River -- were quick to offer their parishes, hospitals and social service agencies to the victims.

Ferries crossed the Hudson with the injured as well as with workers who had escaped from the towers before their collapse. The day after the disaster, the same boats began to bring the dead to makeshift morgues in Bayonne and Jersey City.

Meanwhile, stories of escapes brought tears of jubilation and relief to countless loved ones. Tom Rottenberger, a catechist at St. Martin of Tours in Bethpage, Long Island, slipped out of his twin towers bank office to attend morning Mass and was safely outside the World Trade Center when disaster struck.

Five men who escaped the burning towers but could find no way to return to New Jersey tried to swim across the Hudson and were picked up by a police rescue boat. When they were dropped on shore, they ran to Our Lady of Czestochowa church in Jersey City, arriving wet in only their trousers. The men apologized to Fr. Thomas Iwanowski, telling the pastor they just “had to come to church.”

The church hall of the once-Polish, now largely Hispanic parish soon became a center for food donations from restaurants and supermarkets and a clearing house for local Jersey residents, thousands of whom commuted to the twin towers daily and could not get home. The church also took in children from a school near the towers that was evacuated.

Dwindling hopes

Catholic Charities USA opened a toll-free line at (800) 919-9338 to receive donations for victims of the disasters. It is the agency commissioned by the U.S. bishops to represent the Catholic community in times of domestic disaster.

Bishop William Murphy of Rockville Centre placed all the medical facilities incliding ambulances, emergency rooms, medical and surgical staff and blood supplies of the diocese’s Catholic hospitals at the disposal of the New York authorities. But even as he did, hopes dwindled, as fewer and fewer survivors were brought to nearby hospitals.

Reports of anti-Muslim and anti-Arab bias, harassment and threats were part of daily news reports throughout the region. many Middle East restaurants and shopkeepers in Paterson, N.J., kept their premises shuttered, fearing attacks. At ecumenical services and vigils, church leaders made appeals -- as did New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani -- not to label as terrorists fellow citizens who might have looked like, spoken like or been a member of the same religion or ethnic group as were the suspected attackers and their assistants.

In Teaneck, N.J., Weheed Khalid of the Islamic Center of Bergen County noted, “There is a nervousness because we have become targets as well. Muslim-bashing is at an all-time high.” Of the extimated 6 to 7 million Muslims in the United States, about 250,000 reside in New Jersey.

Area colleges were also trying to cope with the fallout.

St. John’s University in Jamaica, Queens, has concentrated its efforts on accounting for students and faculty who were evacuated from its Manhattan campus a half hou before the first tower of the World Trade Center collapsed. The campus is located two blocks from the towers. After the evacuation, people scattered, said Jody Fisher, a spokesman for the Catholic university. As of Sept. 13, the school was still working on locating people.

Some university students had internships in the financial center, Fisher said, but it was not known if they were in the buildings that have collapsed.

The funeral of fire chaplain Judge, which was scheduled Sept. 15 at St. Francis of Assisi at Madison Square Garden, was among the first of what is expected to be thousands of such services to be held throughout the greater New York area.

“He died as he lived -- bringing the love and compassion of God in places of fear, hate, bitterness and doubt,” said his friend and fellow Irishman Brendan Fay of Queens. He loved the homeless, immigrants, prisoners, people with AIDS, New York’s lesbian and gay community, and those in recovery programs, Fay said, and he loved to laugh. Judge held retreats for firemen, especially those in 12-step programs.

To many in the area who want to know how to speak to their children about demonic, suicidal actions, Judge offered advice when he was pastor of St. Joseph’s Church in West Milford, N.J., in the early 1980s. It was at a time when five teens took their lives and several more died in alcohol-related car accidents. Franciscan Fr. Bernard Splawski, who followed Judge at the parish, recalled his counsel to grieving parents then in the hope it would bring comfort to those numbed by grief today:

“There are really no answers that you can give people, but somehow you have to give them hope that somewhere, something good will come to lift us up and keep us going until we get the eternal vision of God,” Judge wrote at the time.

Funerald or memorials

When NCR went to press there was still speculation as to whether the city would see individual funerald or massive memorials in churches, synagogues, mosques and mortuaries. At press time, thousands are presumed to be among the dead.

While Giuliani urged New Yorkers to come back to their jobs, to patronize shops, restaurants, theaters, movie and concert halls and to not be afraid to use public transport, many events had to be called off.

Among the cancellations was the 50th anniversary celebration of the International Catholic Migration Commission. Stranded in New York with no planes back to his office in Geneva, the commission’s secretary general, William CAny, who had come to New York for the celebration, e-mailed his staff working in 20 nations around the world and urged them to give 110 percent of their efforts to help needy refugees.

“Do not let them become objects to you, do not let them become nameless and faceless. Keep these good folks, who have received a dose of ‘bad,’ right in front of you,” Canny wrote to those on the frontlines of sheltering the stranger. “They have been entrusted in your care. They will give many blessings and gifts and you will be happy.”

It was advice that many in New York could find comforting when they began to deal with loss of their loved ones and the incomprehensible hatred and violence that had ripped away so many innocent lives.

Patricia Lefevere is NCR’s special report writer. NCR staff and Cahtolic News Service contributed to this report.

National Catholic Reporter, September 21, 2001