My Work Here Is Not Finished

Above: The body of Father Mychal Judge, O.F.M. is carried out of One World Trade Center (North tower) after Two World Trade Center (South tower) collapses (click to see full image). Photo by Shannon Stapleton, Reuters.

The Book of Mychal has sat on my bookshelf for almost a year now. I keep trying to pick it up. I want to read it all. Every time I try, I make it a few pages before I break down in tears (it’s not fun to ugly cry in your office).

The Reverend Mychal Judge, O.F.M. was a Roman Catholic Franciscan friar and a chaplain for the Fire Department of the City of New York. He grew up in the poverty of the Great Depression. His exposure to the friars at the church across the street from where he shined shoes convinced him that he should follow in their footsteps. At age , Judge began the process of joining the Order of Friars Minor. He took his solemn vows ten years later to become a full member of the order. In 1992, after serving in a few parishes, he was assigned to the chaplaincy of the FDNY.

“Father Mike” loved his work among the firefighters of New York, and they loved him. When he first started with the FDNY, he didn’t know what to do. The Book of Mychal relates a story of the firefighters posting a “guard” at their ladders because Father Mike would try to climb the ladders himself to give the firefighters water to drink. But in time, he proved his worth as a spiritual provider and guardian. He was never as concerned for his own life as he was the lives of those he served and regularly put himself in danger for the sake of the firefighters who needed him.

He wasn’t just a fire chaplain. Father Mike was well known for his ministry to those shunned by society. He cared for those in his community who were homeless, poor, in pain, and sick. He was passionate in his ministry to those suffering from HIV-AIDS and an outspoken advocate for the LGBTQ+ community, of which he himself was a member. He was a recovering alcoholic who never shied away from telling his story if it could help someone else into recovery. His own spiritual struggles brought him so close to God that he could be categorized as one of the mystics.

On 11 September 2001, Father Mike rushed to Ground Zero. He entered the lobby of the North tower and immediately began helping, praying with, and if necessary, providing last rites for emergency workers and victims of the attack. He watched bodies fall from the upper stories and die in an instant on the pavement outside. He cried out to God in horror. When ordered to evacuate, he defiantly proclaimed, “My work here is not finished.”

And then the South tower fell. Chunks of metal and concrete blasted through the lobby of the North tower and the FDNY command post on a cloud of dust and smoke. When the air cleared, the firefighters immediately assessed the situation. Many had been killed by the debris. Among them was Father Mike, who had been hit in the back of the head by debris.

As they evacuated the building, some of the firefighters carried Father Mike’s body out of the rubble. Someone found a chair, which they used to carry his body even further (captured in the photo above). Eventually, through many different hands, Father Mike was laid at the altar at Saint Peter’s Catholic Church. Though he was not the first to die in the attacks, his death was the first to be officially certified by the medical examiner, and thus he is listed as “Victim 0001”.

Father Mychal Judge was one of 2,996 people who died that day. He was one of 343 firefighters who died doing what I consider to be the most selfless act humanly possible. He was loved by his department as one of their own in a way that only the family and friends of firefighters can truly understand.

This day is always hard for me. Neither my father, nor my uncles, nor my grandfather, all Chicago firefighters, were involved in the rescue or recovery operations on this day nineteen years ago. But they know what it was like. They know what it was like for those firefighters to look death in the eye, and still leap into action when given the order to “Run, run, run!” into the buildings, dodging falling debris and bodies, giving their sweat, their blood, and their lives just to save one person, just one more. At any time, on any day, that could have been my family out there. There are already enough people in the world who experience the same pain infinitely more deeply than I do; people who did lose someone they loved.

If I had to choose a patron saint, it would be Saint Mychal Judge: firefighter, chaplain, friend to the poor, lover of the LGBTQ+ community, caregiver to those with AIDS, lover of God. I hope he’ll forgive me if I never finish his biography. I still have time–my work is not yet finished. And I pray that, whenever my time comes, in whatever way it comes, I join the communion of saints in the same way he did–serving others without regard for the danger, surrounded by those who loved him.

In honor of my father, the firefighter, hero

Icon of Father Mychal, O.F.M. by Brother Robert Lentz, O.F.M.

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