When he was still a kid living in Brooklyn, Mychal Judge used to
come over to Penn Station in Midtown Manhattan to shine shoes. Just
around the corner, on West 31st Street, stood the ever-popular St.
Francis Church and Friary. It was there that young Judge first got
to know the friars and was drawn to join the Franciscans. Today,
a simple street
sign across from Penn Station (on the corner of West 31st Street
and Seventh Avenue) reads "Father Mychal F. Judge Street"
in honor of the firefighter chaplain who gave his life trying to
comfort others at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.
When visiting New York in early October, I had the good fortune
to stay with my brother Franciscans for five days in the large friary
at 135 West 31st Street. This is where Father Mychal Judge lived
the last 15 years of his life along with the dozens of other friars
who zealously minister at St. Francis Church or work with poor and
homeless people in the neighborhood. Having my camera and notebook
with me, it dawned on me that I should take a close look at some
of the places and personalities around St. Francis Church and Friary
that are now linked to the memory of Mychal Judge. This would include
his room, the firehouse across the street from the church and a
few of the Franciscan friars that Father Mychal lived with.
In a friary office, Father Cassian Miles, O.F.M., a classmate of
Mychal Judge, showed me a new portrait
of Father Mychal, which was to be unveiled that evening (October
4, 2002) at a benefit in honor of the friar. Cassian also took me
into St. Francis Church to show me the wonderful new stained
glass window built into the west wall of the church in honor
of all those who gave their lives on 9/11. The window contains a
image of Father Mychal.
visit to the firehouse
The next day, another classmate of Father Mychal, Father Patrick
Fitzgerald, O.F.M., accompanied me across the street to the firehouse
to view a bronze
bust of Father Mychal, which the firefighters had installed
near the back of the station. Patrick posed for a photo next
to the bust of his friend. This firehouse had been a primary
focus of Father Mychal's ministry for the ten years before he died.
It was from
this fire station that he sped off toward the World Trade Center
on September 11 with Captain Danny Brethel on a mission of loving
service from which neither would return.
When Father Patrick and I returned to the front of the firehouse
and stood facing the church and friary across the street, Patrick
pointed out the window
of the room where Mychal lived. He did so, recalling that whenever
the firefighters would rush out on a call with their sirens going,
Mychalif in his room at the timewould go over to that window,
raise his hand in blessing and pray for the firefighters.
'There were no boundaries to Mychal's love'
Later on, Patrick sat down with me and privately
shared his memories of Mychal Judge. He said he considered Mychal
his "best friend." Besides being classmates, he and Mychal
had been each other's spiritual confidants and sounding boards for
the last 15 years when they both lived at St. Francis Friary. The
two would go out for dinner and often take long walks in the evening.
The death of Mychal was a great loss for Father Patrick.
"Mychal was the type of guy who would give
you the shirt off his back," Father Patrick recalled. "If
someone gave him an expensive gift, he would often turn around and
generously give it away to someone else. One day he gave me a beautiful
Buffalo Bills football jacket. He knew I was from Buffalo, New York,
and a great fan of the Buffalo Bills. So one day, Mychal saw this
jacket on sale in some shop and, on impulse, bought it for me! He
was known for big loving gestures like that."
"That's how I remember Mychal. He was very
generous with his time and talent. There were no boundaries to Mychal's
love. He was very inclusive. There was not an ounce of racism, sexism
or religious discrimination in his bones. Since his death, many
people have come forward from the four corners of the globe saying
they had experienced Mychal's loving care and concernpoor people,
rich people, Catholics and Muslims, men and women of all persuasions."
In many ways, Mychal was very traditional and
devout in his Catholic practices, Father Patrick said. "He
kept a rosary on the gearshift of his car and would often pray the
beads while driving. He had a special devotion to Mary, St. Francis
and to the Blessed Sacrament. At the end of the day, he often stopped
to pray in the 3rd-floor friary chapel. He would say morning and
evening prayers on his knees at the side of his bed."
"Most of all, Mychal was super-generous with his time for others,
ready to care for anyone, no matter what their economic, ethnic
or religious background or sexual identity. With great compassion,
he visited and ministered to people living with HIV and AIDS at
a time when many in the Church would not go anywhere near these
individuals. We could all learn a lot from Father Mychal's unconditional
and inclusive kind of lovehis accepting of others as they
are. A real sense of God's overflowing goodness was reflected in
the generous love that Mychal showed to others.
visit to Mychal's roomwhere his successor now lives
During my stay at the West 31st Street friary, I also ran into Father
Chris Keenan, O.F.M., the friar who succeeded Father Mychal as firefighter
chaplain. Father Chris graciously invited me to see the room which
Mychal had occupied while he served as firefighter chaplain. Now
Father Chris lives in that room, still using Mychal's desk and
other items he left behind. He happily consented to my request to
take some photos of him looking
out the window towards the firehouse just as Mychal had surely
done in the past. Father Chris also encouraged me to go with him
over to the firehouse and take a picture of his firefighting
colleagues, who have become like family to him.
Father Chris had more than a casual connection
to Mychal Judge. In fact, he owes his vocation to the friar. Chris
was a young truck driver when he first met Mychal at a Franciscan
parish in New Jersey. Father Mychal suggested to Chris that he might
have a religious calling. Had he ever thought of becoming a Franciscan
friar? Chris saw something in Father Mychal and the others friars
that attracted him to the Order. Before long, he decided to become
a friar. Now years later, Father Chris considers himself blessed
to follow Father Mychal in the role of firefighter chaplain.
May God bless and protect Father Chris and all
of our friends on West 31st Street!
An informative 43-minute video about The Church
of St. Francis of Assisi and its patron saint, narrated by Martin
Sheen, is available at St. Francis bookstore next to the church
(For more information send an email to email@example.com).
The video (dedicated to Fr. Mychal Judge) includes a half-minute
sequence in which the friar appears and talks. It also features
commemorative photos at the end.