Saturday, March 29, 2008
When you drive along Washington Avenue, you can’t help but notice this statue in the middle of our Firefighters Memorial Park at Hurley Avenue.
It depicts four firefighters carrying someone from the hell that was Ground Zero, NYC on 911.
That person was Father Mychal Judge, aka Victim Number One. After five years of the Iraqi occupation, and 4,000 of our troops lost, we sometimes forget the tremendous loss we felt at home and the courage of our local heroes. But who was Mychal Judge to New York’s firefighters?
Searching through past online articles, I discovered Mychal Judge was a devout, openly gay recovering-alcoholic Catholic priest, a fabled New York figure who had a knack for telling great stories and would burst into old Irish standards at the drop of a hat. Judge had a Clintonian talent for making people feel as though they were the only ones in the room and a bartender's gift for bringing strangers together.
A New York Magazine feature article from 2001 followed the origin of his Myth: the first wisp of real poetry to emerge from the devastation of the World Trade Center was the tale of Mychal Judge's death. Within hours of the collapse, a story began circulating that he'd been hit by falling debris when he took his helmet off to give last rites to a firefighter, a man who himself had been crushed by someone who'd jumped from Tower One.
Seven years later, it seems that the story is at least partly myth, though perhaps a myth necessary to the demands of the day. For one thing, Judge's body was found in the lobby of Tower One, not on the sidewalk outside. But it's understandable how the myth bloomed. Those who knew Judge, wanted him to die gorgeously and aptly, in a way that expressed the depth of his faith. It was how they imagined him. Such a death suited a legend.
As it happens, the unembellished story of Mychal Judge's death, standing in the lobby with firefighters of Tower One is just as moving -- and an even more telling tribute to the chaplain, as well as to the men he served.
Back in the early eighties, Judge was one of the first members of the clergy to minister to young gay men with AIDS, doing their funeral Masses and consoling their partners and family members. He opened the doors of St. Francis of Assisi Church when Dignity, a gay Catholic organization, needed a home for its AIDS ministry, and he later ran an AIDS program at St. Francis. Last year, he marched in the first gay-inclusive St. Patrick's Day parade, which his friend Brendan Fay organized in Queens.
So, needless to say, the attack on the World Trade Center touched every strand in the fabric of our country. When I see that statue in our firefighter’s park I am reminded of the heroes in our midst and I continue to say THANK YOU.