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Ministry at Ground Zero: Firefighter Chaplain Chris Keenan, O.F.M.

By Jay Copp

One year ago, Father Mychal Judge, O.F.M., died while serving New York City's firefighters. Another Franciscan friar carries on that tradition.

 

Q U I C K S C A N

Reverence at Ground Zero
Ministry of Presence
'Have a Great Life'
Grief and Gifts
Anniversary Will Bring More Grief

Father Chris Keenan, O.F.M.

Photo by
Phillip Jacobs/
The Anthonian

Father Chris Keenan, O.F.M., parks his official-issue blue Ford, outfitted with a radio and siren, in the firehouse across the street from the midtown Manhattan friary where he lives. His pager and cell phone connect him to the firehouse night and day for emergencies. Other times he visits just to chat.

The firefighters are a second family to him. He knows them and what they’ve been through. There’s Jim Cody, for instance. On the list of firefighters killed on September 11, Cody counts 68 friends and acquaintances.

Today, Father Chris stops to banter with Lt. Ed Brown, 20 years on the job but never part of a notification until the wee hours of September 12. It was only hours after Father Mychal Judge, revered chaplain, had been called to everlasting duties while giving last rites to a firefighter.

That night Lt. Brown and Father Chris, his brown robe smelling of soot and his mind reeling from the horrors of the day, rode together to the home of a fallen firefighter. “I’m glad you’re coming along,” Brown nodded at the Franciscan priest. “I’ve never done one of these before.”

“Neither have I,” the priest replied.

Father Chris, after many doubts and an initial “No,” was installed as an official chaplain to the New York City firefighters last November. His flock may be as wounded as they come. There are 343 dead. The other 11,000 firefighters, who eat, sleep and risk their lives together, share a bond that goes beyond camaraderie and approaches brotherhood. They now are in the throes of “a grief beyond grief,” as Father Chris describes it.

“He took the job at the worst possible time,” says Cody. “He’s got the very big shoes of Father Mychal to fill. On top of that, he’s got September 11 and everything connected to it. It’s like staring down the barrel of a gun.”

For a long, long time, Father Chris’s days were filled with visits to the morgue, wakes, funerals, burn units, detox and rehab facilities and counseling sessions. His ministry encompasses parents who lost children, firefighters who lost comrades and, until recently, anguished Ground Zero workers, who couldn’t find even a trace of thousands of those who were lost.

“I just move through each day with a sense of peace knowing that it’s a loving God who sets the agenda, not myself,” he says.

Reverence at Ground Zero

Father Chris Keenan is six foot two, broad-shouldered and quick to welcome others with a massive bear hug. “Peace, my brother” is his standard greeting. “He’s a big teddy bear,” says Bonnie Wells who, as director of volunteer ministry, is a co-worker of Father Chris’s at St. Francis of Assisi Church. “He’s so down to earth. He’s able to meet people where they are.”

While at Ground Zero, which he frequented two or three nights weekly, Father Chris often had cause to reflect on his faith, evil and the power of love. There was the day the recovery workers found both a police officer and a civilian.

Father Chris put down his four-sided hoe and stood in a row with 200 others for the familiar ritual. The bodies, draped in American flags, were walked up out of the pit into ambulances. Construction workers, police officers and firefighters stood in silence.

“It made the corporal work of mercy of burying the dead seem quite real,” recalls Father Chris. “It was a very sacred experience. There was an awesome respect for each person who died. It was a gift to be part of that.”

Each recovered body renewed the pain of sudden, tragic death. But if the terrorism was meant to sow discord, then the appropriate retort was, Terrorism, where is thy sting? “There is such reverence for the person,” says Father Chris. “It’s really not at all an experience of hatred.

“We’ve been on a journey to hell. We saw the face of evil. We’ve experienced the capacity of people to do awful things to one another. Yet the people working [at Ground Zero] harbored no hatred. We reclaimed it as a holy place. The son of a firefighter told me that two bullets went into that building. Everything that has come out since then has been love.”

When the World Trade Center collapsed, citizens of dozens of nations died. The towers were not far from Ellis Island, where millions once disembarked with the dream of becoming U.S. citizens. They sought a better life, where social harmony was not dependent on shared ancestry.

Father Chris’s parents, Thomas and Mary, arrived under the shadow of the Statue of Liberty in the 1920s. The attacks on September 11 seemed to be a strike against all those who believed in America and its political, social and religious freedoms.

The reverential respect for the dead police officer and civilian was a counterstrike. At Ground Zero, “we weren’t in a church but surely in a sacred space,” says Father Chris. “For a Catholic, Christian and American, it was a powerful moment.”

Ministry of Presence

St. Francis of Assisi Church is cherished by pilgrims nationwide for its shrine to St. Anthony and its stunning mosaics. For Engine Company 1/Ladder Company 24, located across the street, the friary is their very own connection to matters of the spirit.

Father Mychal was from this friary as was his chaplain-predecessor, Father Julian Deeken, who died in 1991. The night of his death, Father Mychal was carried to a nearby church and to the firehouse, two places he was at home. “The Franciscans are considered part of the firehouse,” says John Timulty, a retired firefighter who volunteers at St. Francis of Assisi.

Seven chaplains actually serve New York City firefighters. All are held in high honor. But New York City firefighters are mostly Irish and Italian Catholics. They are salt-of-the-earth folks. The Franciscans may wear brown robes, but the firefighters see them as being cut from the same cloth.

“Father Chris has the Franciscan way,” says Timulty. “He’s the right man for the job. ‘Call me Chris,’ he tells everyone. It’s a great ministry for him.”

Firefighters cherished Fathers Mychal and Julian for many reasons. One was their disdain for sanctimony. Jim Cody was married by Father Mychal. Cody drove Father Julian all over the city for funerals and wakes. “I told him early on that I’m not very religious,” he recalls. “He said, ‘That’s O.K. Too much religion is not a good thing.’”

Cody sees the same spiritual humility in Father Chris. “He doesn’t preach to you. He listens to you,” he says.

For a chaplain or anyone else to breach the inner circle of firefighters and be accepted is no small feat. Firefighters share a bond and the firehouse is their inner sanctum. “It doesn’t matter what race you are or who you are; inside the firehouse, the differences are not there,” says Timulty. “Say you’re getting ready for dinner. Everybody does something—peels potatoes, cooks the meat, whatever. In five minutes you could be in a burning hallway crawling. Joe or Mike might make the difference between life or death.”

The sense of shared purpose is otherworldly. “It’s more of a religious community than a religious community,” Father Chris says half-jokingly.

Maybe a Hollywood movie would portray a successful chaplain in New York City as a source of inspirational wisdom and heroic speeches. In the eyes of firefighters, such an approach would bomb.

“Firefighters are not used to being helped. They’re used to giving help,” says Timulty. “They have a certain bravado. But there are times when they open up, as long as it’s in private, in a back room. Believe me, the spiritual help can make a difference.

“You don’t need someone who can say great things. You need someone with broad shoulders to lean on, someone to talk to, someone who can give you a pat on the back or a kick in the behind.”

Words often cannot match the power of presence. It’s not what is said but an openness to others that counts. “I simply try to be present to them,” says Father Chris. “I listen to them in such a way that I hear what they say. I think this is all an important part of the ministry of priesthood. I don’t come into a situation bringing spirituality. I come away discovering my own spirituality.”

‘Have a Great Life’

If Chris Keenan, as a young man, had not met Father Mychal, he might have been at Ground Zero day after day not as a cleric but as a construction worker. The young Chris was a truck loader, construction worker, a Teamster-in-the-making.

But a priest? “Nothing was further from my mind,” he says. Then he met Father Mychal at a parish in New Jersey, through his brother. The priest told a disbelieving Chris that he might have a calling. The more he saw of Father Mychal and other friars, the more he realized the priest might be right. “They seemed to have something wonderful in their lives and I wanted some of that for myself,” he says.

Years later, the two discovered they had a family bond. Chris’s father had delivered food to a Brooklyn grocery store managed by Father Mychal’s father. Both their Irish immigrant fathers suffered from mastoiditis, a consequence of infections in the middle ear.

Those were coincidences. What was certainly real was the conversion of heart that preceded Chris’s entry into religious life. “You’re called to see you as others see you. Or you’re called to see yourself as God sees you,” he says.

A friar at 22, he was ordained a priest by then-Bishop Joseph Bernardin seven years later in 1971. He served in East Rutherford, New Jersey, Buffalo, Boston and Washington, D.C. In the 1980s he set up two hospices in Boston, which ministered to 200 people dying of AIDS. Before becoming firefighter chaplain, Father Chris’s ministry was already challenging and time-consuming. He trained 900 volunteers who worked for the parish’s social outreach or in city programs.

After September 11, Father Chris visited the Engine 1/Ladder 24 firehouse regularly to support the firefighters. Like the idea of becoming a priest years earlier, the idea of becoming chaplain was unthinkable. Having buried his father in February and undergone cancer surgery in June, he was overwhelmed with his current duties.

The desire to name him as Father Mychal’s successor rose from the ranks. Firefighters let the top brass know whom they wanted. When asked, Father Chris turned them down. They persisted.

He consulted with his co-workers at St. Francis, expecting they’d want to keep him. “I was too afraid to make a decision and move forward,” he says. “I told them it’s not really my decision. It’s our decision. ‘It’s our decision? You should do this.’”

The decision was the turning point, a moment of grace. “After that, the anxiety and fear moved to serenity and peace. God was saying, ‘This is my will for you. I will give you the grace and strength to do this.’ God’s will unfolds each day.”

After accepting the chaplaincy, Father Chris visited a cemetery outside the city, placed his chaplain’s badge on the grave of Father Mychal, and then knelt and prayed. He did the same at the grave of Father Julian. He was part of the brotherhood of firefighters and part of the brotherhood of chaplains. Part of Father Mychal walks with him. He hears his voice.

“Mychal would be the first to say, Don’t try to fill my sandals. Be yourself. Show up. Be open to God’s will. Pray every day and meditate. Enjoy other people. Take it a day at a time as I did. Have a great life.”

Grief and Gifts

The homilist at the funeral for Father Mychal Judge remarked that it might have been a blessing he died. Otherwise, he would have been beside himself trying to take care of 343 families. That task was left to Father Chris!

His schedule is packed. He still hears Confessions several hours a day, more days than not, at St. Francis and retains other duties at the friary. His chaplaincy job is a 24/7 blur of visits to firefighters and their families. His sister helps him take and return phone calls. One day she returned 30 calls. That left him with 30 more to return.

The people he gets to know are not a blur. They welcome him into their lives. He enters and stays, able to offer a measure of solace.

In April, long after he first met the Weinberg family in the early hours of September 12 when he first assisted in breaking the news of a death to the family, Father Chris traveled to Florida to visit the parents again. Firefighter Michael Weinberg, 34, had not been at work on September 11. But he rushed to the towers because it was his duty and because his sister worked on the 72nd floor.

A talented athlete who played minor league baseball for the Detroit Tigers, Weinberg was strikingly handsome. In fact, one year he was the featured firefighter in a calendar that raised money for charity. He worked with disadvantaged kids when not fighting fires.

Weinberg was so anxious to get to the towers that he abandoned his car by the side of the road when traffic stalled and hopped aboard an emergency rescue vehicle. When the towers fell, he tried to protect himself by diving under a fire truck. His sister made it out alive. He did not.

Weinberg’s father, Morty, is a retired firefighter. “There is still unresolved grief. They feel so separated from New York,” says Chris, explaining why it was important to travel to Florida.

He has sought to ease the grief of many others, too. John and Jan Vigiano lost their two children. Like his dad, John, 36, was a firefighter. Joseph, 34, was a detective. The father went to Ground Zero nearly every day for months, praying his sons’ remains would be found. A rescue dog found Joe deep in the rubble but John’s remains were never found.

“In my 32 years of ministry I’ve found that the one hurt that requires healing is parents burying a child. That’s a wound that a husband and wife continue to carry around,” says Father Chris.

The net of death ensnared people from St. Francis Parish. Carol Ann LaPlante ran the art gallery in the lobby of the friary. She was an artist and poet. She once wrote a poem about a parishioner who died, a woman who wept when she lit candles in the sanctuary.

So God has blown your candle out.
He has relit its light, no doubt,
Some place our eyes must wait to see.

LaPlante, 59, went to Mass the morning of September 11 before heading to work on one of the upper floors of the towers. Her mother was certain she survived the crash. Without fail, LaPlante left her desk to get a cup of coffee at 8:45 a.m. Not so this day. One of the planes blasted into the window close to where she sat.

“Her mother could not come to terms with that idea—that her daughter was vaporized, pulverized, cremated. She was so sure she would be found wandering through the city in a daze,” says Father Chris.

“One day we went down to Ground Zero. She saw the rubble. She said then she knew that no one could live through that. That was the moment of her acceptance of her death. A month later I buried the mother.” (The mother had been ill for some time already.)

Anniversary Will Bring More Grief

Father Chris’s role is to be there for the survivors, to listen if they want to talk, to offer a shoulder when they cry, to sit quietly beside them. He is part of the fire department, someone who doesn’t wield a hose or climb a ladder but offers less tangible yet equally crucial support.

“The guys accept him,” says Lt. Brown. “He’s doing his job. We need support staff. Not everyone can run into a burning building.”

Cody has his own take on it. “I can crawl down a burning hallway. But to walk into the home of a family you don’t know and comfort them, that’s bravery, too. To comfort people like that is a gift. And you can see it in his face that he wants to be there.

“When people come up to me needing help, I refer them to him. He’s never said no to anybody. I never saw Fathers Julian, Mychal or Chris say no to anybody.”

For all the suffering and anguish, the worst is yet to come, especially for the firefighters. Their energies were focused on recovering bodies. Now the last of the rubble has been cleared, and the anniversary looms. Traditionally, the one-year anniversary of a firefighter’s death is met with a commemoration at the firehouse and a Mass for Catholic firefighters. The department is bracing for a new wave of raw grief.

“What’s hard for me is to be open to what has yet to unravel,” says Father Chris. “All the energy of the firefighters has been drawn into recovery. When things are ‘back to normal,’ everything people have put on the back burner will unwrap. Post-traumatic stress will kick in. People will catch up with their own feelings that they put aside to find their brothers.”

Immersed in Their Courage

The chaplain draws his strength from God and from some of God’s many chosen people—firefighters. Being with them means not only being engulfed in grief but also being immersed in their courage. “They’re awesome,” he says. “We’re all conditioned to flee from danger. That’s a gift we’re given. They go into danger and their mission is to protect lives and property.”

Often, before Father Chris can ask a firefighter how everything is, the firefighter will smile warmly, grab his arm and bellow, “How you doing?” He has a standard reply to that: “Who could have it better than me? Being with awesome people like you is a gift.”

 

Jay Copp is communications manager for a charitable nonprofit organization in Chicago, Illinois. The author of The Liguori Guide to Catholic U.S.A. (Liguori, 1999), Copp lives with his wife and their sons, Kevin (6), Andrew (4) and Brendan (3), in La Grange Park, Illinois.

 


Chaplains Have a Long, Glorious History

As chaplain, Father Chris Keenan is fulfilling a role that the Church has performed for more than 1,200 years. For centuries chaplains have served God’s people as reminders that the sacred and the ordinary are intertwined.

The Council of Ratisbon in 742 officially approved the use of chaplains, primarily for the military. But the council specifically prohibited the chaplains (as “servants of God”) from fighting or bearing weapons.

The origin of the term chaplain dates back to St. Martin of Tours in the fourth century. A soldier in the Roman army, he gave his cloak to a cold beggar. That night, a vision of Christ wearing the cloak appeared to him. He became a fervent Christian.

His cloak was preserved as a relic by the kings of France who carried it into battle. Capa is Latin for “cape” or “cloak.” The tent in the field where the cloak was enshrined was known as a capella. The priest-custodians of the relic were known as capellani, a name applied over time to all priests in the military. Capellani evolved into the word chaplain.

U.S. history is replete with heroic, selfless chaplains. During World War II, Father Joseph O’Callahan, a lieutenant commander, was assigned to the USS Franklin. He earned the Medal of Honor for dodging fires and explosions to attend to wounded and dying sailors after a Japanese kamikaze attack.

Duffy Square in New York City, located near Times Square, is named after Father Francis P. Duffy, who bravely accompanied New York’s 69th Regiment into the gory battles of World War I. He later became the beloved pastor of Holy Cross Church on 42nd Street.

In modern times chaplains are found in a number of settings besides the military and hospitals. There are an estimated 4,000 workplace chaplains, for example. “Give us this day our daily bread,” we pray. Having a minister near us during the day while we work for our bread reminds us of the constant presence of God.

 


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