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St. Peter’s Parish: Death and Resurrection at Ground Zero

St. Peter's Roman Catholic Church

Around 9 a.m. on September 11, Father Kevin Madigan heard the parish secretary screaming. Patricia Ruggiero felt the whole building shake violently, ran out onto Barclay Street and looked up to the top of the North Tower, 110 stories above her. She saw the flames, the smoke and a gaping hole. She ran back, shouting to Father Madigan that a plane had hit the tower.

“I looked out the window,” Father Madigan tells St. Anthony Messenger at his parish office, “and I saw all kinds of fire engines and ambulances. Sirens were wailing. I hurried down the street toward the World Trade Center and saw everything on fire. I was trying to find out from the cops where they were carrying the wounded. All of a sudden, as I stood there, there was another explosion. The second plane was hitting the South Tower. Debris went flying all over the place. I remember seeing a wheel of the plane fly over my head. And some kind of water broke above me and splashed on my shoulders.”

Father Madigan returned to St. Peter’s Church to make sure the staff got out safely and could get back to their homes. Then he went back outside. On the street, he met a priest who was an assistant fire chaplain and went along with him. “He and I were walking south on Church Street, which is the eastern boundary of the World Trade Center.

“All of a sudden we heard this BIG RUMBLE! The South Tower was collapsing first—even though it was the second tower hit. ‘Go down here!’ I yelled to the priest, pointing to the stairs leading into a subway station. I figured that if we could get down into the station—and nothing collapsed on top of us—we could walk along the subway platform and emerge about four blocks north of the World Trade Center.

“Transit cops were also nearby and they ran down the steps behind us. ‘Huddle against the wall!’ they shouted. We huddled there for about 15 minutes. Dust came pouring in and we began choking. The dust finally settled. We all linked arms. One of the cops had a flashlight so we just walked along the subway platform and emerged again into the open air after about four blocks.”

Father Madigan is still counting his blessings. If he and the fire chaplain had been walking a block or two farther down Church Street, he believes the falling debris of the collapsing tower might have easily killed them.

The Body of Mychal Judge Is Carried into St. Peter’s

Around the same time that Father Madigan and his group were huddled against the subway wall, Franciscan fire-fighter chaplain Father Mychal Judge was struck on the head and killed by a piece of falling debris in the lobby of the North Tower.

Having been informed an hour or so earlier that a plane had struck the tower, the Franciscan friar rushed to the World Trade Center to assist his fellow firefighters and to pray with the wounded. Also inside the North Tower lobby at the time was Bill Cosgrove, a 49-year-old police lieutenant assigned to traffic. He too had driven quickly to the World Trade Center, parked his car next to St. Peter’s Church and had run over to the North Tower.

Cosgrove, now retired, explained to in a phone conversation how he happened to be one of the men who carried the body of Father Judge out of the rubble. The North Tower was in a state of “complete chaos,” he recalls. “I’m running back and forth from the lobby to West Street, coordinating ambulances for the injured….The last time I enter the lobby, I notice a fire command post there—and I see Father Judge standing there. He is still alive and behind the fire desk with the fire chiefs.

“But, suddenly, all the lights go out and everything begins shaking. Although it is really the South Tower that is collapsing, we think our building is coming down! I begin choking from the thick clouds of cement dust drifting in. I’m barely able to breathe….Before long, as I’m reaching around in the darkness, I see the fire chief shine a light on the face of Father Judge. ‘Oh my God, it’s Father Judge!’ he cries.”

Lt. Cosgrove and several others pick up the dead fire chaplain and find a way out of the building. When the five men carrying the priest’s body are about 30 yards away from the North Tower and heading east on Vesey Street, New York Times photographer Shannon Stapleton snaps the famous photo seen around the world of the group anxiously transporting the lifeless body through the dust and rubble. In this photo (see next page), Bill Cosgrove is the policeman in the white shirt.

Shortly after this, they transfer Father Judge to a body board and carry him to the corner of Vesey and Church Streets, where there is an ambulance already filled with injured people. “We place him on the ground next to the ambulance and try to catch our breath,” says Cosgrove. At this point, the body of Mychal Judge is lying less than a half block from St. Peter’s, located at the corner of Church and Barclay Streets.

Because a priest could not be found to bless the body or offer final prayers, Cosgrove and another policeman, Jose Rodriguez, knelt down alongside the body and prayed for the slain priest. “We removed the jacket that was covering his head. Father Judge looked peaceful,” remembers Cosgrove, “like he was asleep. We knelt on the ground, placed our hands on his head and said our own personal prayers for him. Then we blessed ourselves—and placed the jacket back over his head.”

And that was the last time Cosgrove saw Father Judge’s body that day. When he went into a nearby deli in search of water, he got trapped inside with others because the North Tower suddenly began coming down with an enormous roar. Fallen debris at first prevented those inside from leaving the building. When they finally broke out, Cosgrove was needed to help lead the others to safety. He had no opportunity to check back on the fire chaplain’s body.

In the meantime, another fire chaplain, Father Kevin M. Smith, pastor of St. Francis de Sales Church in Patchogue, New York, was just a block or two away. He got word that his fellow fire chaplain Mychal Judge had been killed and was asked to bless the body. In time Father Smith was able to locate the body, now partly covered by rubble, and bless it.

Soon he was accompanying a group of people carrying the body to a command station just a half block past St. Peter’s Church (at 99 Church Street), where the body was officially identified. The police and Father Smith looked at the body and saw Father Judge’s firefighter’s badge and other identification. The body was then released.

“I saw four firemen outside the building,” says Father Smith, “and asked them to carry the body to St. Peter’s.” He felt it was very appropriate that the body of a priest—and of a fellow fire chaplain he had come to know—be placed inside the church. Father Smith accompanied the body into the church and suggested that it be laid out on the marble floor before the altar. He then went into the sacristy and found a stole, which he placed on top of Father Judge’s body, along with his fireman’s badge.

Father Donald Fussner, an assistant pastor at St. Peter’s, was in the church when the firemen brought the body of Mychal Judge up the center aisle and placed it before the altar. Father Fussner says that he had noticed “that Father Judge’s neck was swollen and appeared to be broken. His head was lying totally on his shoulder.” He also mentions that firemen had pulled forward the two large candles that stood on either side of the altar so that one stood on either side of Father Judge’s body, during the hour or two that the body reposed there.

A Franciscan friar in New York and a good friend of Father Judge has pointed out a curious coincidence or connection between Father Judge’s body lying on the marble floor before the altar and a marble image, or bas-relief, of Christ (see photo on page 39) on the front of the church’s old altar only four or five yards away. The marble image of Christ shows Jesus’ body as it lay in the tomb (on the day of his crucifixion). According to Father Madigan, the bas-relief had come from the original (1796) St. Peter’s Church.

Father Judge’s body remained before the altar of St. Peter’s until around 2 p.m., when two Franciscan friars from Father Judge’s residence, St. Francis Friary on West 31st Street, came to St. Peter’s to take the body of their confrere back to the fire station across the street from the friary.

Rescue Activities at St. Peter’s

The Church of St. Peter was only slightly damaged by the collapse of the towers of the World Trade Center, whose northeast corner is only a half block away from the church. The worst harm came from the piece of landing gear that struck the church’s roof and left a large hole.

Water damage also occurred, however, when ash and debris from the two towers caused the gutters to back up during a heavy rain a few nights after the tragedy.

Other damage came from the wear and tear of rescue operations based at St. Peter’s Church after 9/11. “We were the first place they were bringing all the emergency equipment. Everything was in disarray,” Father Madigan says. “Stuff was piled six feet high all over the pews—bandages, gas masks, boots, hoses and cans of food for the workers and the volunteers, many of whom were sleeping in the church on bedrolls.” The same was true of the downstairs church, he adds.

Normal life did not come back to St. Peter’s until October 28, when martial law in the area was lifted. “That was when we officially celebrated our first Mass after September 11,” says Father Madigan. There were other Masses before then, but only for the rescue workers and those with credentials to get in. After October 28 the parish cut back on the number of Masses “because the number of people coming was way down. Many who had been coming to Mass at St. Peter’s or St. Joseph’s from the World Trade Center, of course, were not around anymore.”

In recent decades both churches had become, for the most part, service churches for people who attended Mass before going to work in the morning or during their lunch breaks. Because these Catholics came and went rather anonymously, it was hard for the parish to know how many had actually perished or been seriously injured. They know of only two registered parishioners who were killed on September 11—one who was a lector at St. Peter’s and the other, a parishioner at St. Joseph’s.

St. Josephs Also Involved in Rescue Work

The St. Joseph’s Chapel experienced a fate similar to that of St. Peter’s after September 11. It too served as a space for rescue efforts and emergency equipment.

In Father Madigan’s words, “FEMA—the Federal Emergency Management Agency—had gotten into the chapel and just took the whole place over. They had taken out all the pews, as well as the chairs with kneelers attached, and placed them in the plaza in front of the chapel. It rained a couple days afterward and all the wood, fabric and kneelers were destroyed. The carpet was destroyed from all the dust of people coming in and out….The ceiling, too, suffered dust damage from the impact of the collapsing towers.

“For about two months after FEMA left,” Father Madigan adds, “we let the city use the chapel space as a place where construction workers, cops and firefighters could go and eat and take a break. Computers were set up so rescue workers could receive and send e-mails.” It was another way for the parish to continue serving the rescue efforts, according to the pastor.

Father Madigan and other parish leaders decided that St. Joseph’s Chapel needed to be completely redesigned and renovated before it could open again. The official reopening took place on the first anniversary of the disaster, September 11, 2002.

Remembering the Victims and Heroes

Both St. Peter’s Church and St. Joseph’s Chapel will mark the second anniversary of the World Trade Center disaster on the 11th of this month with special Masses and prayers to remember the victims and heroes of 2001.

Last year, in his homily on the first anniversary of the terrorist attacks, Father Madigan shared some thoughts that helped the parish of St. Peter’s grapple with the immense tragedy of 2001. His words are helpful to all of us.

“On September 11 the world as we used to know it fell apart. But at the same time we witnessed a terrible act of evil, we also saw incredible goodness, compassion and bravery. As the Twin Towers were being consumed in flames, people were rushing from all over the city to be of help—police officers, EMS workers, firefighters. But there were others, ordinary people who acted heroically that day—office workers who delayed their own escape to stop and assist others….Incredible goodness in the face of terrible evil.

“Prior to September 11 we were accustomed to look at the Twin Towers as the symbol of America’s strength and power in the world of trade, commerce and finance. But as those buildings turned to dust before our eyes, we came to look to each other to see where our true strength and power lie. Our true strength was in all those acts of compassion, those deeds of generosity and self-sacrifice that were performed that day and in the days, weeks and months afterward.”

Historical Highlights of St. Peter’s

Long before St. Peter’s was ensnared in the unspeakable disaster of 9/11, the parish had already had an amazing and formidable history:

  • St. Peter’s is the oldest Catholic parish in the state of New York. The church’s cornerstone was laid in 1785, and the first solemn Mass was celebrated in St. Peter’s in 1786. This was nearly three years before George Washington—standing less than a mile away on an open-air balcony of Federal Hall (the nation’s first capitol)—took the oath of office as the first president of the United States.
  • St. Peter’s Parish opened the first Catholic school in the state of New York in 1800.
  • Elizabeth Ann Seton was received into the Roman Catholic Church at St. Peter’s in 1805. Born in New York City in 1774, Elizabeth often prayed beforeThe Crucifixion painting above St. Peter’s main altar. (This painting by Mexican artist Jose Vallejo was a gift from the archbishop of Mexico City in 1789.) A widow and mother of five, the former Episcopalian eventually went on to found the Sisters of Charity. Elizabeth was the first person born in the (soon-to-be) United States to become a canonized saint (September 14, 1975).
  • Pierre Toussaint was a well-known parishioner of St. Peter’s for 66 years. Toussaint (1766-1853) was born a black slave in the Caribbean land now known as Haiti. Brought to New York as a slave and educated by the wealthy Berard family, he was eventually given his freedom. He became a prominent New York hairdresser, businessman and exemplary Catholic, always showing great generosity to the poor. Cardinal John J. O’Connor introduced Toussaint’s cause for beatification in 1990, and Pope John Paul II declared him venerable in 1997. His body is now buried in the crypt of New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
  • Father Edward F. Sorin, C.S.C., founder of the University of Notre Dame, stayed at St. Peter’s. Father Sorin and six brothers of the Congregation of Holy Cross arrived in New York from France on September 13, 1841. They celebrated their first Mass in America the next day at St. Peter’s on the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. They proceeded to Indiana where Father Sorin and companions eventually founded a small school near South Bend, naming it after Our Lady. On the 14th of this month, the Congregation of Holy Cross will place a plaque at St. Peter’s commemorating the Congregation’s first Mass in this country.
  • The cornerstone of the present Church of St. Peter was laid in 1836. It became obvious as time passed that a new, larger church was needed to accommodate the rapidly growing parish. By the 1940s, however, St. Peter’s was becoming more of a service church as the district gave way to stores and tall office buildings, with thousands entering the area each day for work. The small mission chapel of St. Joseph’s opened its doors in 1983.

Jack Wintz, OFM, is a retired editor with St. Anthony Messenger. This article appeared in the magazine’s September 2003 issue.

St. Anthony Messenger