I hadn’t heard of Father Mychal Judge until September 11, 2001. But really, Mychal Judge had been synonymous with the Big Apple for many years prior. Most New Yorkers my age (I’m thirty-six) or older now know this name because of it’s relation to the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers, Mychal Judge was the first documented fatality in the collapse; the proof on his death certificate.
It wasn’t until recently, when I was asked to participate in this year’s Walk of Remembrance in honor of Father Judge that I got to wondering, who exactly was this man and what made him so special? No sooner were the answers presented to me the moment my mind formulated the questions. Alongside your average descriptors for a Catholic priest – warm, devout, caring - were some surprising ones being used for a person whose legacy reaches back to the early ‘80s. Words like recovering alcoholic (though Judge didn’t broadcast his early struggles with alcohol, he was passionate about AA and their part in helping him and others get on the right path to healing), Irish music lover (never one to pass up a night of singing along with a band in a pub – yes, even as a priest!), and gay (it wasn’t until later that this was known), also detailed his character. But no adjective comes close to encompassing the true definition of this man’s life: saint. Yes, this friar has been dubbed a saint, and rightfully so because of his gifts (there were many) and his flaws (a reminder of what it means to be human).
The son to Irish immigrants in 1933, Mychal Judge was raised a first-generation American in Brooklyn, New York. Though he didn’t know he’d end up a beloved chaplain for the FDNY, he did know at a very young age that he’d be a priest; his twin sister having been quoted saying that religion was a very natural environment for him. Mychal Judge, (who was born Robert Emmett Judge and was later given the name Fallon Michael from the clergy, but he dropped Fallon and changed Michael to the Gaelic form Mychal) watched his father suffer and later die from mastoiditis, a slow and painful illness in the skull and inner ear. Upon his father’s death, young Mychal traveled to Penn Station to shine shoes and earn money for his family. It was at that time, when he meandered into St. Francis of Assisi Church across the street and would watch the Franciscan friars that he confirmed his want to be a part of this community.
“I didn’t have a desire for material things,” Mychal said.
This notion proved to be true as his friends recollect when he’d stuff his pockets with whatever money he had and would give it to the homeless people he encountered in his travels. And he was always on the move. Although Father Judge entered the realm of the unpretentious, he led quite an exuberant life, befriending many people from various orbits. Whether he was helping the needy, racing to a call with the FDNY, or delivering the Eucharist in Mass, he was a creature of little sleep. The friar’s comrades have stated that he was always on the go and sometimes hard to find. “It wasn’t unlikely to find him singing amongst the crowd in a bar to an Irish rock band. That’s just who he was.”
Though his persona had a sort of nonconformist approach, there was no doubt that Father Judge lived for the Church and the people of God. On an around-the-clock basis, he rendered himself to the community, for example, giving his winter coat to a woman freezing on the streets of New York City and ministering to those otherwise alienated from the Church including AIDS patients. Many recognized Judge for his life of charity.
“He was so loved by everyone that his pager was always buzzing. At one point, he had to decline performing holy matrimony admitting to couples that he was simply too busy with the fire department.” And it was true. Father Mychal Judge was a prominent chaplain – 1 of 5 – in the most prestigious department in the country. He offered encouragement and prayers at fires, rescues, and hospitals, counseling firefighters and their families, often working 16-hour days. That alone was a tall order, but he filled it and filled it well.
“We start at St. Francis of Assisi at West 31st Street and continue down 7th Avenue, following the route the friar had taken to reach the World Trade Center. We stop at firehouses and precincts to read a verse from the bible or say a prayer in honor of their lost members and all who perished that day, something Father Judge would appreciate as we remember those who gave the ultimate sacrifice,” says John.
Firefighter Jack Cook of Engine 325 in Woodside, Queens, has also been involved in The Walk since its inception. “I was a freshman in high school when September 11th happened, but I remember the day vividly – blue skies, great weather. Father Judge would visit my friend’s house [before that day] and pray with the family [Steven McDonald’s family], that’s how I knew him. Anyway, once I found out he was killed in the attacks, and then I was told about the walk, I had to be involved. It was important to me especially now that I’m a part of the brotherhood of the FDNY.”
Firefighters seldom talk openly about 9/11 unless they’re asked. And, almost every one I have spoken to says, “Heaven has one hell of a fire department.” Yes, they do, one that includes one hell of a chaplain.
As a writer who hosts this blog, I’ve highlighted many accomplishments and talents of servicemen and women, often feeling an underlying connection to their secret – and at times very public – struggles. In performing my research into the friar’s life and also thinking of the world today, I believe Mychal Judge would be proud of the evolution of acceptance and marriage equality happening in 2015. Though there are many unjust things still going on around the globe, Mychal would be the person to put emphasis on the beauty of our planet.
It’s rare that this happens when writing about the deceased, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that through penning his profile, I feel as if I’ve gained a friend in Mychal Judge. He’s the type of person I’d have instantly bonded with if the fun, Irish, gay, recovering alcoholic priest walked into a bar.
Note: The Walk of Remembrance is taking place on Sunday, September 6, 2015. For more information, you can check out The Walk’s Facebook page or email Mr. Bates at TugJB1@aol.com