Many of us are familiar with Father Mychal Judge, OFM, a member of the Holy Name Province based in New York City. Father Mychal worked with homeless people and AIDS patients. A recovering alcoholic, he also devoted much time to recovering addicts. The role for which he is best remembered is chaplain to the New York City Fire Department.
On September 11, 2001, Father Mychal rushed from his friary at St. Francis of Assisi Church on 31st Street to the scene of the World Trade Center attacks.
Death of Father Mychal
After anointing a firefighter, Father Mychal was hit by falling debris and killed. He was 68 years old. He became the first officially recorded fatality following the attack. Many of us have likely seen the iconic photo of him being carried away from the rubble by several fire fighters and others.
This hardworking, larger-than-life friar has inspired a huge following. Some have even promoted his cause to become a blessed or saint in the Church.
Members of his province have distributed a prayer attributed to Mychal which he prayed every day. His brothers say that the prayer characterized his approach to all he did. The words of the prayer are “Lord, take me where you want me to go; let me meet who you want me to meet; tell me what you want me to say; and keep me out of your way.” On 9/11, God took Father Mychal exactly where he wanted him (to the Twin Towers), and that was his doorstep to heaven.
Mychal’s prayer is a good prayer for all of us, especially in terms of his key bit of advice: “Lord, keep us out of your way.” Surely, we do well to reflect on that part of his prayer. For isn’t it God’s will and not our wishes that merits the most attention?
In Micah 6:8, we read the words: “You have been told, O mortal, what is good, and what the Lord requires of you: Only to do justice and to love goodness, and to walk humbly with your God.”
Father Mychal Judge walked in this spirit.
Walking in Mychal’s Shoes
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, OFM, a classmate of Mychal Judge, showed me a new portrait of Father Mychal, which was to be unveiled that evening 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 small shadow image of Father Mychal.
A Visit to the Firehouse
The next day, another classmate of Father Mychal, Father Patrick Fitzgerald, OFM, 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, Mychal—if in his room at the time—would go over to that window, raise his hand in blessing and pray for the firefighters.
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 concern—poor 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, Saint 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 love—his 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.
The life of Mychal Judge, OFM, is featured in the book The Franciscan Saints by Robert Ellsberg. Click here or the image below to learn more.