NYC pastors on 9/11 anniversary say the memories endure

John Lavenburg
|National Correspondent

NEW YORK – Towards the end of Father Kevin Madigan’s homily on the first anniversary of 9/11, he referenced a telegram that Pope John Paul II sent to participants of a Way of the Cross ceremony from months earlier, where they crossed the Brooklyn Bridge and concluded at St. Peter’s Church in lower Manhattan.

Particularly, it was a part of the telegram where the pontiff prayed that the “strength of love, justice, forgiveness and peace” might touch the American people. Madigan follows the reference by saying that “each of us has to see how these values can find expressions in our lives.”

Tomorrow, Madigan will revive that same homily from nineteen years ago for the twentieth anniversary of 9/11, telling Crux that what he said then is still very apropos today.

“The things I said then are just as true today, and that’s why I think it’s good to keep the same homily again because it’s worth repeating,” said Madigan, who is now the pastor of Our Lady of Good Counsel and St. Thomas More in Manhattan.

At the time of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 – when hijackers flew planes into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York, and the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia – Madigan was about a mile from Ground Zero at St. Peter’s, where he was the pastor.

Other than resurrecting his old homily, Madigan said he won’t do anything different than he has on previous anniversaries. For other pastors that were at or near Ground Zero at time of the attacks, there’s also less of a focus on the fact that it’s been twenty years, and more so a focus on remembering and honoring the lives lost and those who served, the same as every year.

Nearly 3,000 people were killed during the attacks. In the years that followed, many first responders died, or developed cancer, from the exposure to toxins and other hazardous materials from the resulting recovery efforts.

Father Brian Jordan, a Franciscan friar who was present at Ground Zero the day of the attack, and subsequently served as a chaplain at the World Trade Center in the aftermath, has spent the last couple of weeks visiting the day’s three memorial sites.

Two weeks ago he and friends visited the Flight 93 memorial in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. On 9/11 Flight 93 was hijacked and believed to have been headed for Washington D.C., before several passengers retook the plane and it crashed into a field.

Last week he participated in a special prayer service at the Pentagon to commemorate 9/11. And this week he was back in the city visiting friends, specifically trades workers – ironworkers, electricians, operating engineers and carpenters among others – that he calls the “unsung heroes.”

“You hear a lot about the cops and firemen, and rightly so, what you don’t hear enough about is these are people, they lost loved ones, they had no chaplain,” Jordan told Crux. “I ended up being their chaplain, the clear majority are Roman Catholic, so I’ve become close friends with members of the building trades, union construction workers.”

Jordan said he had breakfast with them Thursday morning alongside the U.S. Secretary of Labor Mary Walsh, who was once a union laborer himself. Jordan, his friends and colleagues, held an informal prayer service early this morning before he headed back to Maryland where he is now pastor of St. Camillus Parish in Silver Springs.

When it comes to the significance of the anniversary, he cites the ancient Roman poet Cicero, who once said “memory is a treasury and guardian of all things.”

“The memory of our lost loved ones, they’ll never be forgotten. The memory of working with wonderful people, whether it be emergency services or other recovery workers on Ground Zero, will never be forgotten and trying to console family members who lost loved ones will never be forgotten,” Jordan said.

“So the memory will endure forever,” he continued. “The body may have died, but the memory of our loved ones will always live no matter what and that’s what I’m doing this year in memory of the 20 years.”

The memory of that day for Father Brian Graebe, pastor of St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral in Manhattan, is something he believes is a special bond between New Yorkers. Graebe, 21 years old at the time, was in a New York University classroom when the attack took place.

He vividly remembers leaving the classroom and watching both towers burn from Washington Square Park. And seeing missing person fliers hung all over the city in the days, weeks and months that followed as the rest of the country began to move on.

“There is something those of us who lived through it share with the people in the surrounding New Jersey, Long Island, Westchester County,” Graebe told Crux, getting choked up recounting the day. “That sense of fear, and anxiety, waiting to get some confirmation from a loved one that they’re alive, and many didn’t get that, so in that sense there is this bond we all gave in the New York larger metro area of having experienced that so up close and in person.”

Graebe said the day has also served as a reminder of a human mortality that he has carried with him in his ministry ever since, never losing sight of “how precious life is and fleeting it can be.”

Graebe and the St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral community will hold a Mass this morning – the same as every year – for all of the first responders and local fire stations. It includes a read out of the names of the fallen to keep their memory alive for years to come.

Follow John Lavenburg on Twitter: @johnlavenburg

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