Priest for all people

Saturday, January 5, 2002

NEW YORK

In his brown Franciscan robe or white firefighter's helmet, Mychal Judge always seemed larger than life. Four months after becoming victim No. 00001 of the World Trade Center attack, Father Mike appears larger than death, too.

The white-haired Fire Department chaplain has emerged from the twisted steel of the crumpled twin towers as a multipurpose icon, claimed as one of their own by constituents across the city where he once walked in leather sandals.

The Fire Department? New York's Irish crowd? The brotherhood of Alcoholics Anonymous? Surely, Mike Judge was one of theirs.

The Catholic Church? And New York's gay community? Just as surely, Mike Judge, a priest for 40 years, belonged to them.

"Mychal Judge's heart was as big as New York, and there was room for everybody," says Brendan Fay, a gay Irish activist and friend of the late priest. "Everybody belonged."

There are more tangible signs of his new status: a stretch of West 31st Street was named for Judge, along with a Hudson River ferry. Pope John Paul II accepted the martyred chaplain's fire helmet from a contingent of city firefighters in the Vatican.

Judge's poster-sized portrait still stands inside the front door of Engine Co. 1/Ladder Co. 24, his local firehouse. The Advocate, a national gay magazine, put him on its cover as one of "our heroes."

Book planned, possible movie

A book on his 68-year life is in the works, with talk of a possible television movie.

"He belonged to everybody, but each person thought he was theirs," says Malachy McCourt, the best-selling author and a Judge confederate for nearly two decades.

"That was the beauty of the man," McCourt continues. No one, he adds, says "one negative thing about him. And I'm saying, 'C'mon! There must be something.'

"But there isn't."

What would Judge make of his ascent into the role of man for all seasons, of his praise from politicians and the pope?

"He'd be howling with laughter," McCourt replies quickly. "And he would put a stop to it if he could."

It was about 8:50 a.m. on Sept. 11 when word reached West 31st Street about the tragedy in lower Manhattan. The thick, black smoke was already billowing skyward. At Engine Co. 1/Ladder Co. 24, the firefighters climbed into their gear and headed downtown.

Across the street at the Church of St. Francis of Assisi, Mychal Judge did the same.

The trip from the firehouse to the friars' residence is maybe two dozen steps. It was a trip that Father Mike -- as he was known among both the homeless and the famous -- made many times since becoming FDNY chaplain in 1992.

This morning, as thousands of New Yorkers ran for their lives toward midtown, Judge jumped in his Fire Department car. With firefighter Michael Weinberg at the wheel and the siren wailing, they sped downtown toward the World Trade Center.

He arrived at the burning 110-story towers, where Mayor Rudolph Giuliani spotted him. "Pray for us," the mayor recalls saying.

"I always do," Judge replied.

The priest, a bottle of holy water in hand, went to work. Within minutes, he was tending to Danny Suhr, a 16-year Fire Department veteran killed by a body falling from the north tower.

Judge removed his helmet to begin the last rites. His prayers ended when he was mortally wounded by a falling chunk of debris.

As word of the terrorist attack spread, a colleague from St. Francis headed downtown -- the Rev. Brian Jordan, who had met Judge a quarter-century earlier on the campus of Siena College.

It was Judge who had challenged Jordan about his vocation, inviting the college senior to become a Franciscan. "Forget about being an unhappy lawyer," Judge told him. "Become a happy priest."

Now, standing in his Franciscan robe with all hell breaking loose around him, Jordan heard that his mentor was gone.

"The firefighters saw my brown habit," Jordan recalls. "And they came up to me and said, 'Sorry about Father Mike.' And then I heard that continuously -- through the night, through the 12th and the 13th. ... From firefighters, police officers, emergency service workers, civilians, volunteers."

Five people carried Judge's limp body from ground zero to the altar of a nearby church, where he was covered with a white sheet, his helmet and badge placed on his chest. Later, he was

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