ARLINGTON, Virginia — In the two decades since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, several Catholics in the Arlington Diocese — where the Pentagon was hit by a hijacked plane — say they relied on their faith that day and in the years since to process what happened.
The diocese, which is just across the Potomac River from Washington, is home to many government employees and military families. Many parishioners were firsthand witnesses to the horrors of Sept. 11 when American Airlines Flight 77 flew into the Pentagon killing 189 people (including the five hijackers).
Lisa Dolan, a parishioner of the Basilica of St. Mary in Alexandria, lost her husband, Navy Captain Robert E. Dolan Jr., in the Pentagon attack. The 43-year-old was working as the strategy and concepts branch head under the Chief of Naval Operations at the Pentagon.
He called his wife at 8:55 a.m. Sept. 11 to tell her a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center in New York.
“We discussed what a horrific accident it was — at that point in time what else would we be thinking but a terrifying accident?” Lisa said.
“Then, just moments after the second plane flew into the South Tower, I knew it was no accident,” she said. She also tried to call her husband back but never got through.
She picked up her children from their Catholic schools in Alexandria and kept trying to contact anyone who might know where her husband was.
As she watched the television images of the Pentagon burning, she said she “knew in my heart that he was gone.”
“I couldn’t understand why my husband, with so much love and goodness in him, was taken so young,” she told the Arlington Catholic Herald, diocesan newspaper.
Several priests from Ireton came to pray with the family that afternoon and their support continued for months afterward, she said.
Lisa has been involved in multiple 9/11 volunteer projects including helping found the Pentagon Memorial Fund which raised money to build the National 9/11 Pentagon Memorial and is currently working to raise funds for the memorial’s visitor center.
She has not remarried because she said in her eyes, she is still married and that even though her husband is not with their family physically, she said he is “always with us in a spiritual sense.”
On the morning of Sept. 11, Father Stephen McGraw took a wrong turn on his way to a funeral at Arlington National Cemetery.
McGraw, only a priest for three months, was assigned as parochial vicar of St. Anthony of Padua Church in Falls Church.
His wrong turn — following signs for the Pentagon hoping that would take him close to the cemetery — led him to a traffic backup on a route just to the west of the Pentagon.
Shortly after 9:35 a.m., the priest heard the roar of a plane flying low overhead and felt the vibrations in his car.
He turned to his right and saw the Boeing 757 crash into the side of the Pentagon “and simply disappear into the building,” which he assumed was a “tragic pilot error.”
He abandoned his car on the road, taking with him a purple stole, oils for anointing, and a book of prayers for the sick and dying. He jumped the guard rail and started praying on the Pentagon lawn, where victims were trickling out of the building.
“The phrase that kept coming to my mind was, ‘Jesus is with you,'” McGraw said. “That was the phrase I kept saying to them one after another, and more than once people responded affirmatively, ‘Yes, yes.’ ”
Meanwhile, about a mile and a half away, Father Francis de Rosa, parochial vicar of Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Arlington, had been watching TV news of the World Trade Center when he heard an explosion.
Not much later, the news broke in to report the Pentagon attack.
“We were just uncertain what to do, and finally I decided I had to go down there,” de Rosa said.
He started walking toward the Pentagon until he reached a police blockade. A military officer, seeing the priest in his cassock, instructed officers to let Father de Rosa through, telling him “we could use some priests.”
By the time he arrived on the scene, most of the injured had been taken away, but he found no shortage of people needing to talk to a Catholic priest.
“I intended to minister to anyone who needed it, and also to be a Catholic presence there, to let them know that the church is there,” de Rosa said. “I heard some confessions, and a lot of people just wanted to talk.”
Despite the inherent danger in running toward a building that had just been the site of a terrorist attack, Father de Rosa said he had no second thoughts. This, he said, is what being a Catholic priest is about.
“There were people in need and that was essentially my parish,” he said. “People were in need; I had to go.”
“There was a moment of reckoning, and I thought, ‘I mean, if I die here taking care of people, so be it.’ I mean, what am I here for? To go and save myself? The priests are here to go down with the ship, the sinking ship the people are on. We’re not here to save ourselves.”
The morning of Sept. 11, Arlington Bishop Paul S. Loverde, now retired, was at St. Paul VI Catholic High School in Fairfax, celebrating the annual Mass of the Holy Spirit to commemorate the start of the school year.
Since the gymnasium was too small to accommodate the entire student body at once, there were two Masses. During the first Mass, school administrators learned of the tragedy unfolding and made an announcement to the students at the conclusion of Mass.
That night, he celebrated a Mass for the Pentagon victims at Blessed Sacrament Church in Alexandria and over the next few days he traveled to parishes across the diocese to celebrate Masses and simply to be with his flock, he said.
“Our churches were filled with people those evenings, the Sunday following, and for several weeks afterward,” he said. “There was a new fervor, a new spirit of deepening faith.”
In the wake of the attacks, diocesan Catholic Charities set up a Pentagon Assistance Fund to aid those affected by the tragedy and allocated about $130,000 to pay for rent, utilities, education, funerals, and mental health counseling for victims and families, according to Jeff Rostand, the organization’s chief financial officer.
The agency also operated a counseling center at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Arlington for weeks after the attack, which provided free counseling services to those in need.
Various parishes and schools held grassroots fundraising efforts that raised thousands of dollars to help victims and first responders.
“We came together … as a great faith community in all of our parishes to really pray for the repose of the souls that (had) given their lives,” said Father Robert Rippy, diocesan chancellor at the time. “The strength of your faith community can really help the healing process.”
Loverde said that day was one of his toughest days as Arlington bishop.
“I will never, never forget Sept. 11 of 2001,” Loverde said. “It was so devastating. Part of my nature is a sensitivity to people, and you just wish you could heal immediately. You wish you could make it go away, but you know you can’t. The most important thing is just to be with people, let them know they’re not alone and to remind them of the faith that we have.”
Riedl is a multimedia producer at the Arlington Catholic Herald, newspaper of the Diocese of Arlington.