Three Priests

Sep 16, 2020

 On the clear morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Fr. Kevin Madigan heard an explosion.  Grabbing the oils for anointing he ran out the door of St. Peter’s parish in New York City, and made his way to the World Trade Center just a block away.

Fr. Judge was the chaplain for the NYFD, and had gone along with Battalion 1 to answer a call close to the Trade Center, when hell broke loose.

From uptown, Fr. Christopher Keenan, watched the smoke rising from the twin towers on a television screen. He went to St. Vincent’s Hospital downtown to tend to those wounded in the attack – but no one came.

NINETEEN years ago, a radical Islamic group flew two planes into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, another into the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia. Passengers retook control of another hijacked plane and crashed it before it could reach its intended target.

For Fr. Madigan, Fr. Keenan and Fr. Judge, the day changed their lives.

“This experience has seared our soul and our spirit and our life, and it has so seared our spirit and our life that it has penetrated our DNA,” Fr. Keenan said. 

Fr. Madigan said, “Prior to 9/11 the parish basically served the people who came to the neighborhood who came to Mass or Confession and devotions.” The parish had a full and well-attended schedule of liturgies and prayers, with multiple Masses said during the morning and lunch hour.

“Immediately after 9/11, that community was no longer there, it was like losing a village of 40,000 people next door.”  

“I had taken the oils for anointing anyone who was dying  “Most people either got out alive or were dead.”

When Fr. Keenan arrived, he was really concerned about his brother friar, Fr. Judge, chaplain for the Fire Department of New York City, asking firefighters if they knew what had happened to the chaplain. “They told me his body was in the back of the firehouse.”

Fr. Judge and Battalion 1 had two French filmmakers doing a documentary on the fire unit, when the towers were hit, the cohort was one of the first on the scene. In the film later released, Fr. Keenan said, “you can see the face of Fr. Judge, you can tell he knows what’s happening and his lips are moving, you can tell he was praying the Rosary.

The Cohort was standing in the North Tower when the South Tower collapsed, spewing debris through the mezzanine of the North tower and eyewitnesses shared. In the impact, Fr. Judge was hit, killing him almost instantly.  Saying, “All of a sudden we felt something at our feet, and it was Fr. Judge, but he was gone.“

His body was carried to the back of the fire station.  

Fr. Mychal Judge was later listed as Victim 0001

And some named him the “Saint of 9/11.” 

Fr. Christopher Keenan said, “He just had an inkling that the Lord Jesus was coming.”  Fr. Judge had told Fr. Keenan, “You know, Chrissy, the Lord will be coming for me”

Father Madigan shared, “The Parish, was open that whole time,” anyone who had clearance to be within the Ground Zero area was welcome at the church. In the weeks after the attacks, the parish acted as sanctuary, as recovery workers who were discovering body parts and other personal effects “would come in there just to sort of try to get away from that space.”

“We would be out there each day just to be able to talk to anyone who wants to talk about what’s going on,” he added. “We’d celebrate Mass in a building nearby.”

Shortly after the attack, Fr. Keenan was installed as chaplain for the 14,000 first responders of the FDNY.

Fr. Keenan joined the firefighters in their task of looking for the remains – of the more than 2,600 people killed at the World Trade Center. “The recovery process lasted nine months.”  There was a drive to find the 343 firefighters killed. “You always bring your brother home, you never leave them on the battlefield,” Fr. Keenan said.

Sometimes, Fr. Keenan said, he would attend as many as four, five, or six funerals or memorials a day

“I was 24/7, 365 for 26 months.”

Fr. Keenan recounted a conversation the firefighters had with him a few days after he was commissioned. After pledging to “offer my life to protect the people and property of New York City,” the other firefighters told their new chaplain “we know you’re ours, don’t you forget that every one of us is yours,” promising to stand by their new shepherd. “I’m the most loved and cared for person in the world and who has it better than me?”

The experience working the recovery at the World Trade Center site is one that Fr. Keenan considers a “gift” and an “honor.”

Fr. Keenan said, he still finds it difficult to express the experience to others or to make sense of what it was like when he would go down into “the pit” to work alongside the firefighters and other first responders. “The only image I had as time went on and I asked, ‘how do I make sense of this as a man of faith?’ is that it was like I was descending into hell and I was seeing the face of God on the people that were there.”

This article was originally published on CNA Sept. 11, 2016. By Adelaide Mena



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