Did he know that 300 of his beloved firefighters were dead?
By ERIC REGULY
Thursday, September 13, 2001
NEW YORK -- I take some comfort in knowing that Rev. Michael Judge, the New York City fire department's priest, probably died unaware of the true horror and inhumanity of the attacks on the World Trade Center.
Did he know it was a carefully planned terrorist attack that killed thousands? Did he know that 300 firefighters -- people he knew and loved -- died in a futile effort to save those trapped in the buildings?
It appears he died simply doing his job, administering last rites to the firefighers who had fallen around him.
His body was found yesterday morning, but I first heard about Father Judge's death at midnight after the attacks on Tuesday. New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani was on the radio talking about the firefighters and police officers who had been killed. His voice was tight, deliberate and controlled as he tried to hold in his emotions.
Father Judge was among the dead, he said. I felt that I had been punched in the gut and ran upstairs to tell my wife, Karen Zagor. She bent over double and wept. We knew Father Judge. He married us in New York in 1994. We have pictures of him in our wedding album.
Karen and I first heard of Father Judge when we were planning our wedding. Karen is Jewish, I am Catholic, and we wanted a wedding that would be recognized in both religions. In many parts of the world, this is a near-impossible task. Living in England at the time, I had to get papal dispensation to marry a non-Catholic.
In New York, though, such requests are nothing out of the ordinary. We needed a priest and a rabbi who could perform an interfaith marriage together. The United Nations, which has its own wedding chapel, recommended a duo anchored by Father Judge. "Who is he?" we asked. The priest for the fire department, a Franciscan, they said.
I met him at St. Francis of Assisi Church on Manhattan's rather grubby Lower West Side. He was extremely hard to reach because he was always at fire scenes, comforting victims and administering last rites. He looked a lot like how I envisioned the real St. Francis.
He was handsome, rather tall and lean, with thick white hair. He had a strong jaw and an infectious laugh. He wore a long, brown robe tied at the waist with a white rope, and sandals. Even when it was cold out, he wore sandals. He was charming and gentle and told us he wished more Catholics and non-Catholics got married. "It breeds tolerance," he said.
I met him alone to confess my sins. It was the first time I had been to confession in years, maybe 15, and I haven't been since. There was no confessional box or "bless me, Father, for I have sinned." He just took me into his spartan office, took my hand and asked me to tell him what I thought I had done wrong.
He didn't flinch. As a priest for firemen, I guess he had heard everything. We then talked about wedding details. I asked whether he wanted us to send a car to pick him up. No, he said. "I have a fire-department cruiser with a siren and I just flick it on whenever I'm late."
In his robe and sandalled feet, Father Judge married us under a huppa, the traditional Jewish wedding canopy, in a gallery in a tough Manhattan neighbourhood called Hell's Kitchen. We exchanged vows and the rabbi sang. I smashed the wine glass with my heel, another Jewish tradition, and the guests clapped.
The priest and the rabbi had done this many times before and the ceremony went flawlessly. Father Judge stayed for the party. He didn't dance, but he drank and always seemed to have a knot of young women around him.
At one point, my father went up to him and introduced himself as the father of the groom and a former altar boy. Father Judge grinned, and in a gentle putdown, said: "Many parents come to me and say, 'What happened to my son? He left his wife and robbed corner stores. And he used to be an altar boy.' "
There were about 120 guests at our wedding and Karen and I have called as many of them as we could find to tell them about Father Judge's death. They all remembered him for his small effort to bring two religions together. And now we, and they, remember him as a hero.