The Firemen's Friar
He was the first and most famous victim of the World Trade Center attack, but the death of Father Mychal Judge, the beloved New York Fire Department chaplain, was not as extraordinary as his colorful and iconoclastic life.
One month after Mychal Judge's body was pulled from the shattered lobby of 1 World Trade Center, and three weeks after his televised funeral, some of the friar's friends decided to hold a smaller memorial evening of Celtic music and storytelling. Priests, nuns, lawyers, cops, firefighters, homeless people, rock-and-rollers, recovering alcoholics, local politicians, and middle-aged couples from the suburbs all streamed into the Good Shepherd Chapel on Ninth Avenue. Pete Hamill read one of his columns from the Daily News, the Irish band Morning Star played jigs and reels, and Malachy McCourt -- actor, author, and irrepressible raconteur -- stationed himself by the altar, briskly moving things along as emcee. The crowd was so motley, so colorful, it looked like the setup to a joke. (A priest, a lawyer, and an Irishman walk into a bar...)
Most of the mourners had no idea that Judge whirled through the city in so many different orbits, even though he had an extraordinarily high profile as one of five chaplains of the New York City Fire Department. Most also had no idea why they were commemorating a Catholic priest in an Episcopal church, until one of the event's organizers explained that this was where Judge used to go for AA meetings -- the other cornerstone of his spiritual life, besides the church -- and therefore had a very special significance to him.
"Only Father Mychal could get a room like this together," said Joe Hartnett, an electrician and father of five from New Jersey, when he took his turn at the altar to speak. Judge had been a pastor at Hartnett's parish in East Rutherford when he was a teenager. "I mean, I see firemen, policemen, recovering alcoholics, and people who are -- uh, here's a word I don't use very often -- gay."
And yet this was precisely who Mychal Judge was: a devout, gay, recovering-alcoholic Catholic priest, a fabled New York figure who had a knack for telling great stories and would burst into old Irish standards at the drop of a hat. (His rendition of "Frankie and Johnny" was a legendary crowd-pleaser; by verse three, he'd have his handkerchief out, pretending to weep.) Judge had a Clintonian talent for making people feel as though they were the only ones in the room and a bartender's gift for bringing strangers together. Like this crowd.
"I didn't know anything about his other side," Hartnett said later, after the service. "I just knew what a great guy he was and how he always gave people the time of day. He was everybody's priest."
Perhaps the first wisp of real poetry to emerge from the devastation of the World Trade Center was the tale of Mychal Judge's death. Within hours of the collapse, a story began circulating that he'd been hit by falling debris when he took his helmet off to give last rites to a firefighter, a man who himself had been crushed by someone who'd jumped from Tower One.
Seven weeks later, it seems that the story is at least partly myth, though perhaps a myth necessary to the demands of the day. For one thing, Judge's body was found in the lobby of Tower One, not on the sidewalk outside. For another, one of the firefighters who carried Judge out of the building, Christian Waugh, says he saw the chaplain standing upright by the emergency command post just seconds before they and scores of others got caught in a monsoon of rubble. "I'm assuming he gave last rites to the guy in Company 216 and then ran into the lobby," says Waugh. "Because I was with him in that lobby. He was standing right there, a few feet away from me."
But it's understandable how the myth bloomed. Those who knew Judge -- and he knew hundreds, if not thousands, of people -- wanted him to die gorgeously and aptly, in a way that expressed the depth of his faith. It was how they imagined him. Such a death suited a legend.
As it happens, the unembellished story of Mychal Judge's death is just as moving -- and an even more telling tribute to the chaplain, as well as to the men he served.
"There's a very old postcard of a giant Jesus looking in the window of the Empire State Building in those long, long robes," says McCourt, in a brogue as thick as potatoes. "And that was Mike Judge in New York. He was everywhere. Over the city. And ooohhh, how good it was to know he was there."
Judge was gregarious, mischievous, a luminous presence; he thrived on movement and kept a preposterous schedule, as if he'd found a wormhole beneath the friary on West 31st Street that allowed him to be in six places at once. On any given evening, he might be baptizing a fireman's child, ministering to an aids patient, or listening to Black 47, a Celtic rock band that had a regular gig at Connolly's on West 47th Street. Judge got 30 to 40 messages a day on his answering machine. Every six months, he'd wear another machine out.
"He was the busiest person alive," says Joe Falco, a firefighter with Engine 1-Ladder 24, the company across the street from Judge's home. "He'd come back at all hours of the morning, blowing his siren so we could park his car. No one knew how he did it. No one understood how he maintained his energy."
The firemen loved him. He had an encyclopedic memory for their family members' names, birthdays, and passions; he frequently gave them whimsical presents. Once, after visiting President Clinton in Washington, he handed out cocktail napkins emblazoned with the presidential seal. He'd managed to stuff dozens of them into his habit before leaving the White House.
"I would break his chops constantly," says Falco. "I wouldn't treat him like a priest. I'd treat him like any other guy. It wasn't a priest-parishioner relationship. It was . . . you know, man to man. He'd help guys out with their marital problems. With every problem, big or small. You could go to him."
Obviously, Mychal Judge was not what one might call a conventional priest. But he was, arguably, a typical New York Franciscan -- earthy, streetwise, thoroughly engaged with the characters and chaos of the city. If times required it, Judge would hold Mass in the most unlikely places, including firehouses and Pennsylvania Station. This drove certain literalists in the clergy crazy, but no matter -- Judge pressed on. (To one of his antagonists, a certain monsignor in the chancellery who frequently phoned to admonish him, Judge once said: "If I've ever done anything to embarrass or hurt the church I love so much, you can burn me at the stake in front of St. Patrick's.")
The other pillar of Judge's spiritual philosophy was Alcoholics Anonymous. Once, at the White House, he told Bill Clinton that he believed the founders of AA had done more for humanity than Mother Teresa. "He was a great comfort to those with troubles with the drink," says McCourt, who usually saw Judge twice a month at AA. "He'd always say, 'You're not a bad person -- you have a disease that makes you think you're a bad person, and it's going to fuck you up.' " McCourt pauses a moment. "He had no compunction about language. Not with me, anyway."
Back in the early eighties, Judge was one of the first members of the clergy to minister to young gay men with aids, doing their funeral Masses and consoling their partners and family members. He opened the doors of St. Francis of Assisi Church when Dignity, a gay Catholic organization, needed a home for its aids ministry, and he later ran an aids program at St. Francis. Last year, he marched in the first gay-inclusive St. Patrick's Day parade, which his friend Brendan Fay, a gay activist, organized in Queens.
Cardinal O'Connor wasn't exactly a fan. "I heard that if Mike got any money from the right wing," says McCourt, "he'd give it to the gay organizations. I don't know if that's true, but that's his humor, for sure."
Perhaps the most unusual thing about Judge was how simultaneously New York and un-New York he seemed. Judge's roots in this city ran deep -- he was born here and raised here -- and he knew everyone, from the homeless to the mayor. But he lived on an entirely different plane of priorities from that inhabited by most New Yorkers. He was nonacquisitive, unselfish, and uncomplaining. "Once in a while," his friend Michael Duffy, a friar from Philadelphia, said in his homily for Judge, "he would say to me, 'Michael Duffy' -- he always called me by my full name -- 'Michael Duffy, you know what I need?' And I would get excited because it was hard to buy him a present or anything. I said, 'No, what?'
"'You know what I really need?'
"'No, what, Mike?'
"'Absolutely nothing. I don't need a thing in the world. I am the happiest man on the face of the earth.'"