Jack Wintz, O.F.M.
St. Peter's Church in lower Manhattan once stood in the shadows
of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. So did the parish's mission chapel,
St. Joseph's Chapel, a few blocks away—on the other side (southwest) of the
Center. Although the towers and other buildings were destroyed on September
11, 2001, the two churches escaped serious direct damage and are now back in
Both of these churches, of course, were strongly affected by the
9/11 disasters and were directly involved in rescue activities for some weeks
and months to follow. A landing gear from one of the planes struck the roof
of St. Peter's. The body of Father Mychal Judge, the Franciscan fire chaplain
killed by falling debris in the lobby of the North Tower, was carried into St.
Peter's Church and reverently placed before the altar. The pastor of St. Peter's
himself, Father Kevin Madigan, narrowly escaped death when he hurried out toward
the flaming towers to see if he could be of help.
The Day the Towers Fell
Around 9 a.m. on September 11, Father Kevin Madigan heard the
parish secretary screaming. Patricia Ruggiero felt the whole building
shake violently, ran out onto Barclay Street and looked up to the
top of the North Tower, 110 stories above her. She saw the flames,
the smoke and a gaping hole. She ran back, shouting to Father Madigan
that a plane had hit the tower.
"I looked out the window," Father Madigan tells St. Anthony Messenger
at his parish office, "and I saw all kinds of fire engines and ambulances.
Sirens were wailing. I hurried down the street toward the World Trade Center
and saw everything on fire. I was trying to find out from the cops where they
were carrying the wounded. All of a sudden, as I stood there, there was another
explosion. The second plane was hitting the South Tower. Debris went flying
all over the place. I remember seeing a wheel of the plane fly over my head.
And some kind of water broke above me and splashed on my shoulders."
Father Madigan returned to St. Peter's Church to make sure the staff
got out safely and could get back to their homes. Then he went back outside.
On the street, he met a priest who was an assistant fire chaplain and went along
with him. "He and I were walking south on Church Street, which is the eastern
boundary of the World Trade Center.
"All of a sudden we heard this BIG RUMBLE! The South Tower was collapsing
first—even though it was the second tower hit. ‘Go down here!' I yelled to the
priest, pointing to the stairs leading into a subway station. I figured that
if we could get down into the station—and nothing collapsed on top of us—we
could walk along the subway platform and emerge about four blocks north of the
World Trade Center.
"Transit cops were also nearby and they ran down the steps behind
us. ‘Huddle against the wall!' they shouted. We huddled there for about 15 minutes.
Dust came pouring in and we began choking. The dust finally settled. We all
linked arms. One of the cops had a flashlight so we just walked along the subway
platform and emerged again into the open air after about four blocks."
Father Madigan is still counting his blessings. If he and the fire
chaplain had been walking a block or two farther down Church Street, he believes
the falling debris of the collapsing tower might have easily killed them.
The Body of Mychal Judge Is Carried Into St. Peter's
Around the same time that Father Madigan and his group were
huddled against the subway wall, Franciscan fire-fighter chaplain Father Mychal
Judge was struck on the head and killed by a piece of falling debris in the
lobby of the North Tower.
Having been informed an hour or so earlier that a plane had struck
the tower, the Franciscan friar rushed to the World Trade Center to assist his
fellow firefighters and to pray with the wounded. Also inside the North Tower
lobby at the time was Bill Cosgrove, a 49-year-old police lieutenant assigned
to traffic. He too had driven quickly to the World Trade Center, parked his
car next to St. Peter's Church and had run over to the North Tower.
Cosgrove, now retired, explained to St. Anthony Messenger
in a phone conversation how he happened to be one of the men who carried the
body of Father Judge out of the rubble. The North Tower was in a state of "complete
chaos," he recalls. "I'm running back and forth from the lobby to West Street,
coordinating ambulances for the injured....The last time I enter the lobby,
I notice a fire command post there—and I see Father Judge standing there. He
is still alive and behind the fire desk with the fire chiefs.
"But, suddenly, all the lights go out and everything begins shaking.
Although it is really the South Tower that is collapsing, we think our building
is coming down! I begin choking from the thick clouds of cement dust drifting
in. I'm barely able to breathe....Before long, as I'm reaching around in the
darkness, I see the fire chief shine a light on the face of Father Judge. ‘Oh
my God, it's Father Judge!' he cries."
Lt. Cosgrove and several others pick up the dead fire chaplain and
find a way out of the building. When the five men carrying the priest's body
are about 30 yards away from the North Tower and heading east on Vesey Street,
New York Times photographer Shannon Stapleton snaps the famous photo
seen around the world of the group anxiously transporting the lifeless body
through the dust and rubble. In this photo (see next page), Bill Cosgrove is
the policeman in the white shirt.
Shortly after this, they transfer Father Judge to a body board
and carry him to the corner of Vesey and Church Streets, where there
is an ambulance already filled with injured people. "We place him
on the ground next to the ambulance and try to catch our breath,"
says Cosgrove. At this point, the body of Mychal Judge is lying
less than a half block from St. Peter's, located at the corner of
Church and Barclay Streets.
Because a priest could not be found to bless the body or offer final
prayers, Cosgrove and another policeman, Jose Rodriguez, knelt down alongside
the body and prayed for the slain priest. "We removed the jacket that was covering
his head. Father Judge looked peaceful," remembers Cosgrove, "like he was asleep.
We knelt on the ground, placed our hands on his head and said our own personal
prayers for him. Then we blessed ourselves—and placed the jacket back over his
And that was the last time Cosgrove saw Father Judge's body that
day. When he went into a nearby deli in search of water, he got trapped inside
with others because the North Tower suddenly began coming down with an enormous
roar. Fallen debris at first prevented those inside from leaving the building.
When they finally broke out, Cosgrove was needed to help lead the others to
safety. He had no opportunity to check back on the fire chaplain's body.
In the meantime, another fire chaplain, Father Kevin M. Smith, pastor
of St. Francis de Sales Church in Patchogue, New York, was just a block or two
away. He got word that his fellow fire chaplain Mychal Judge had been killed
and was asked to bless the body. In time Father Smith was able to locate the
body, now partly covered by rubble, and bless it.
Soon he was accompanying a group of people carrying the body to
a command station just a half block past St. Peter's Church (at 99 Church Street),
where the body was officially identified. The police and Father Smith looked
at the body and saw Father Judge's firefighter's badge and other identification.
The body was then released.
"I saw four firemen outside the building," says Father Smith, "and
asked them to carry the body to St. Peter's." He felt it was very appropriate
that the body of a priest—and of a fellow fire chaplain he had come to know—be
placed inside the church. Father Smith accompanied the body into the church
and suggested that it be laid out on the marble floor before the altar. He then
went into the sacristy and found a stole, which he placed on top of Father Judge's
body, along with his fireman's badge.
Father Donald Fussner, an assistant pastor at St. Peter's, was in
the church when the firemen brought the body of Mychal Judge up the center aisle
and placed it before the altar. Father Fussner says that he had noticed "that
Father Judge's neck was swollen and appeared to be broken. His head was lying
totally on his shoulder." He also mentions that firemen had pulled forward the
two large candles that stood on either side of the altar so that one stood on
either side of Father Judge's body, during the hour or two that the body reposed
A Franciscan friar in New York and a good friend of Father Judge
has pointed out a curious coincidence or connection between Father Judge's body
lying on the marble floor before the altar and a marble image, or bas-relief,
of Christ (see photo on page 39) on the front of the church's old altar only
four or five yards away. The marble image of Christ shows Jesus' body as it
lay in the tomb (on the day of his crucifixion). According to Father Madigan,
the bas-relief had come from the original (1796) St. Peter's Church.
Father Judge's body remained before the altar of St. Peter's until
around 2 p.m., when two Franciscan friars from Father Judge's residence, St.
Francis Friary on West 31st Street, came to St. Peter's to take the body of
their confrere back to the fire station across the street from the friary.
Rescue Activities at St. Peter's
The Church of St. Peter was only slightly damaged by the collapse
of the towers of the World Trade Center, whose northeast corner is only a half
block away from the church. The worst harm came from the piece of landing gear
that struck the church's roof and left a large hole.
Water damage also occurred, however, when ash and debris from the
two towers caused the gutters to back up during a heavy rain a few nights after
Other damage came from the wear and tear of rescue operations based
at St. Peter's Church after 9/11. "We were the first place they were bringing
all the emergency equipment. Everything was in disarray," Father Madigan says.
"Stuff was 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 church on bedrolls." The same was true of the downstairs church,
Normal life did not come back to St. Peter's until October 28, when
martial law in the area was lifted. "That was when we officially celebrated
our first Mass after September 11," says Father Madigan. There were other Masses
before then, but only for the rescue workers and those with credentials to get
in. After October 28 the parish cut back on the number of Masses "because the
number of people coming was way down. Many who had been coming to Mass at St.
Peter's or St. Joseph's from the World Trade Center, of course, were not around
In recent decades both churches had become, for the most part, service churches
for people who attended Mass before going to work in the morning
or during their lunch breaks. Because these Catholics came and went
rather anonymously, it was hard for the parish to know how many
had actually perished or been seriously injured. They know of only
two registered parishioners who were killed on September 11—one
who was a lector at St. Peter's and the other, a parishioner at
St. Joseph's Also Involved in Rescue Work
The St. Joseph's Chapel experienced a fate similar to that
of St. Peter's after September 11. It too served as a space for rescue efforts
and emergency equipment.
In Father Madigan's words, "FEMA—the Federal Emergency Management
Agency—had gotten into the chapel and just took the whole place over. They had
taken out all the pews, as well as the chairs with kneelers attached, and placed
them in the plaza in front of the chapel. It rained a couple days afterward
and all the wood, fabric and kneelers were destroyed. The carpet was destroyed
from all the dust of people coming in and out....The ceiling, too, suffered
dust damage from the impact of the collapsing towers.
"For about two months after FEMA left," Father Madigan adds, "we
let the city use the chapel space as a place where construction workers, cops
and firefighters could go and eat and take a break. Computers were set up so
rescue workers could receive and send e-mails." It was another way for the parish
to continue serving the rescue efforts, according to the pastor.
Father Madigan and other parish leaders decided that St. Joseph's
Chapel needed to be completely redesigned and renovated before it
could open again. The official reopening took place on the first
anniversary of the disaster, September 11, 2002.
Remembering the Victims and Heroes
Both St. Peter's Church and St. Joseph's Chapel will mark the
second anniversary of the World Trade Center disaster on the 11th of this month
with special Masses and prayers to remember the victims and heroes of 2001.
Last year, in his homily on the first anniversary of the terrorist
attacks, Father Madigan shared some thoughts that helped the parish of St. Peter's
grapple with the immense tragedy of 2001. His words are helpful to all of us.
"On September 11 the world as we used to know it fell apart. But
at the same time we witnessed a terrible act of evil, we also saw incredible
goodness, compassion and bravery. As the Twin Towers were being consumed in
flames, people were rushing from all over the city to be of help—police officers,
EMS workers, firefighters. But there were others, ordinary people who acted
heroically that day—office workers who delayed their own escape to stop and
assist others....Incredible goodness in the face of terrible evil.
"Prior to September 11 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."