NEW YORK – On September 11, 2001, four coordinated terrorist attacks in the United States resulted in the death of 2,996 people and the injury of 6,000 others. But the first official fatality of the attack was a Catholic priest, Father Mychal Judge.
Today, seventeen years later, we honor the sacrifice and witness of Father Mychal. Here’s a look back on his life and his dedication to ministry.
“I wanted to be a friar”
Father Mychal Judge was born Robert Emmett Judge in Brooklyn, New York. His parents were immigrants from Ireland. His twin sister Dymphna was born two days after Robert.
For three years as a young child, Robert witnessed his father suffer and die from mastoiditis, an illness that affects the skull and inner ear. After his father’s death, Robert began to work to help the family.
He shined shoes at New York Penn Station and would often stop in at Saint Francis of Assisi Church, which was across the street from the station.
Later, he said that “I realized that I didn’t care for material things . . . I knew then that I wanted to be a friar.”
Becoming a Franciscan
Robert began his freshman year of high school at Saint Francis Preparatory School in Brooklyn, a school run by the Franciscan brothers.
At just 15 years old, he begin formation to enter the Order of Friars Minor. He then transferred to seminary and was admitted to the novitiate in 1954.
In 1961, he was ordained a priest, taking the name “Mychal”. His superiors assigned him to the Shrine of Saint Anthony in Boston, Massachusetts. Throughout his priestly ministry, Father Mychal served in New Jersey and the Bronx. He was also the president of Siena College.
In 1986, he was assigned to Saint Francis of Assisi Church in Manhattan, the church where he first encountered the Franciscan order.
A life of ministry
Although he never showed obvious signs of an addiction, Father Mychal developed a dependency on alcohol in the 1970s. Thanks to the help of Alcoholics Anonymous, he regained sobriety and went on to share his story as a witness to others caught in addictions.
In 1992, Father Mychal was appointed the chaplain for the New York City Fire Department. He prayed at with firefighters when they responded to emergencies, went along with them on rescue missions, and counseled fire fighters and their families.
He often worked 16 hour days alongside the fire fighters.
That fateful day
On September 11, 2001, after learning that the World Trade Center had been hit by the first of two jetliners, Father Mychal wasted no time responding to the emergency.
On site, Father Mychal met with the Mayor of New York City, Rudolph Giuliani. The mayor asked Father Mychal to pray with him for the victims and the city of New York.
On his way to the tower, the Franciscan priest stopped to pray over the bodies of the dead on the streets. He entered the lobby of the World Trade Center and reported to the emergency command post.
At 9:59 am, the South Tower collapsed, sending debris flying into the lobby of the North Tower. Flying debris struck Father Mychal in the head and killed him.
At the time of his death, witnesses remember Father Mychal praying “Jesus, please end this right now! Jesus, please end this.”
An American Pieta
After his death, a NYPD lieutenant, two fireman, a bystander, and a FDNY emergency technician carried Father Mychal’s body out of the North tower lobby.
The moment was captured by photographer Shannon Stapleton, who worked for Reuters.
The Philadelphia Weekly referred to Stapleton’s shot as “an American Pieta”.
The men carried Father Mychal’s body to altar at Saint Peter’s Catholic Church, where he was examined and declared dead by the medical examiner.
Father Mychal was referred to as “Victim 0001” in the report. Although he was not the first to die in the terrorist attack, he was the first body to be recovered and taken to the medical examiner.
His body was identified on the scene by NYPD Detective Steven McDonald, a good friend of Father Mychal.
More than 3,000 people attended Father Mychal’s funeral, which was held at St. Francis Assisi Church. His body was buried in the friars’ plot at Holy Sepulcher Cemetery in Totowa, New Jersey.
Today, Father Mychal’s name is engraved on panel S-18 of the National September 11 Memorial South Pool.