FOR THREE CLERGYMEN: THE ULTIMATE TEST OF FAITH

BY KERRY SHERIDAN

The Rev. John Delendick, the Rev. Brian Jordan, and the Rev. Everett Wabst were three of the clergymen who devoted their time and offered their faith to survivors of the worst terrorist attack in American history. They ministered to hundreds of families whose loved ones had literally disappeared, presided over funeral masses in which there were no bodies to bury, and witnessed the demise of some of their closest friends. Each used his individual life experiences to reach the groups he felt he could help most—for Delendick, it was the surviving families; for Jordan, it was the rescue workers at Ground Zero; for Wabst, it was the firefighters.

Delendick and Wabst knew each other (and many of the firefighters who worked at the scene) before the ordeal. Jordan was entirely new to the task of counseling rescue workers. In myriad ways over the months to follow, each clergyman became both victim and survivor, both counselor and patient. As priests and pastors who had grown familiar with the rites of death during their long careers, they found that dealing with the carnage resulting from 9-11 required more inner strength than they had ever had to muster, and it changed the nature of their religious roles forever.

REV. JOHN DELENDICK

On the morning of 9-11, Delendick, a department chaplain, rushed to the FDNY command post on West Street, across from the twin towers of the World Trade Center (WTC), where there was a crowd of activity. As fire companies arrived in response to the fires burning in both towers, they reported to the command post staging area, where the chiefs and captains sent them to the North Tower or the South Tower. Chief of Department Peter Ganci was shouting orders. FDNY Captain Timothy Stack-pole, of Division 11 in Brooklyn, stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Delendick, a longtime friend. Together, they surveyed the burning towers and watched as people jumped from windows in the upper floors. Delendick turned to Stackpole and said, “It can’t get any worse than this.”

Suddenly, Delendick heard a low, rumbling sound. He looked up at the South Tower. The top seemed to be exploding. Delendick and a crowd of firefighters and police officers ran for cover underneath the garages of the World Financial Center, as a cloud of caustic dust and debris swooshed down hard over their heads. As he rushed away, he felt a tug at his sleeve. It was a police officer. “Can I go to confession?” the officer shouted. “This is an act of war, isn’t it?” Delendick hollered back, “I’m giving everyone general absolution!”

After Delendick and the others fled from the first collapse, Ganci ordered the men to re-form a command post near Chambers Street, farther away from the towers. Delendick began walking with the others and reached the corner of Vesey and West streets, just opposite the North Tower, when he heard the dreaded rumbling sound he had heard seemingly just moments before. He turned and ran back toward the river as the second massive tower imploded. Delendick followed the riverbed north to Chambers Street and began looking around for Ganci, First Deputy Commissioner William Feehan, and the other chiefs he had been with earlier that morning. They were nowhere to be found. No one knew who was in charge anymore.


Father Mychal Judge’s funeral procession. (Photo by FDNY Photo Unit.)

So Delendick and a group of firefighters turned and walked back toward the original command post. It was there they discovered the bodies of Ganci and Feehan, a short distance from the garage doors.

Delendick spent much of the afternoon and evening with fire officers trying to piece together a list of the missing. The scope of the chaos made conventional methods of tracking down firefighters impossible. The terrorists had struck right when the firefighters’ shifts were changing. Many men had jumped on fire trucks to respond to the scene even though they were off-duty, and countless companies were riding double. Usually, either the lieutenant or the captain on duty in a fire station carries a riding list in his pocket, which details the names of the firefighters on duty and their specific tasks for that shift—the chauffeur, the search team, the control firefighter, the nozzle operator. Often, a copy of the list is also kept inside the fire truck. But so many of the officers were missing and so many trucks buried or destroyed that the riding lists were impossible to locate. Even if the lists had been found, their count wouldn’t have been accurate. As the number of firefighters missing grew into the hundreds, so did Delendick’s despair level increase. It’s a feeling he can describe only as “horrendous.”

“Throughout the day down by the site, all sorts of different people would come up to me,” said Delendick. “They’d ask, ‘Have you seen my brother? Have you seen my father? Have you seen my son?’ It was just shocking to realize. People you didn’t know were down there. Then finding out they were missing.” He shook his head.

When asked how many friends he ended up losing that day, Delendick didn’t hesitate.

“Three hundred and forty three,” he said.

In the weeks after Peter Ganci’s funeral, Delendick turned his focus to helping families of the dead. He accompanied widows, brothers, and sons to Ground Zero; gave them tours of the site; and prayed with them. Delendick said he never used Bible quotes to explain the higher meaning of the devastation. He just made it up as he went along.

“I’d start off by explaining where everything was,” said Delendick. “I’d point out where each tower had been. After they’d had their fill of that, I’d ask them to be very quiet. I’d ask them to talk to their loved ones, to their husband or father or brother. I’d say, ‘Tell him you’re here. Tell him you love him. Tell him you miss him. Then quietly let him speak back to you in your heart. Hear him say he loves you and he misses you and would like to be with you, but he’s okay.’ ”

After that, he’d walk with them to a makeshift monument down by the north cove. They’d leave their flowers, pictures, and teddy bears there. Delendick would pray with them, then bring them home.

For most of the families whose loved ones had not been recovered, seeing the site brought an end to their hope. But it also made their decision to hold a memorial service easier, rather than to wait until something of their loved one was recovered to have a traditional funeral.

Delendick returned to his church and resumed his regular schedule in January. But adjusting to the slower pace has not been easy.

“I think what’s been happening with me is, I spent so much time running, a lot of it didn’t catch up with me until fairly recently,” said Delendick. “I still haven’t really personally grieved yet. Not that I haven’t cried or felt sad, but I haven’t really grieved yet. I don’t think I’ve given myself the time. It’ll come.

“One of the ways a priest gets through a lot of things is through ritual,” said Delendick. “We all get through stress through ritual. Like a funeral mass is a ritual, it’s done the same way. So we have that to fall back on. The rituals that we’ve created for ourselves, not just the funerals, but everything else.”

In December, Delendick went on a weeklong trip to Afghanistan with several members of FDNY and the New York Police Department to deliver relief supplies and visit an orphanage in Kabul. Since the abundant media attention he received after that journey, Delendick has found himself responding to dozens of requests for speaking engagements at churches and before spiritual groups across the country.

FATHER BRIAN JORDAN

On 9-11, Father Brian Jordan, a Franciscan priest who supervised an immigration center out of the church basement at St. Francis of Assisi on West 31st Street in Manhattan, arrived at the church to find several of the friars comforting a group of evacuees who had rushed to shelter there. While phone service in the area had gone dead, the church’s lines were working. Lines of people formed, as they waited to call their loved ones. Others took a drink of water or went to the bathroom. After awhile, Jordan decided he should go to the site and see if he could help there. He threw on his habit, grabbed his holy water, and turned to leave. All of a sudden, one of the friars tapped him on the shoulder.

“Father Judge,” the Rev. Fran DeSpignio told Jordan. “They found him dead at the World Trade Center site.”

The Rev. Mychal Judge was a Franciscan priest and a beloved spiritual counselor to hundreds of firefighters and their families. Judge served technically as a part-time fire department chaplain but pursued his role as advisor and friend to the firefighters with a devotion that was all encompassing and unparalleled among fire chaplains.

In his last moments of life, the Rev. Mychal Judge was at the World Trade Center, working alongside the firefighters he loved. Although rumors circulated in the media early on that Judge was killed by a jumper while administering last rites to a firefighter, Judge died from a heart attack that occurred just before the first tower collapsed, according to Firefighter Christian Waugh, who helped carry his body away from the tower.

When Jordan was told that Judge had died, Jordan was crestfallen. A few of the other friars headed to the site to identify Judge’s body. Jordan went to St. Vincent’s Hospital to see if he could help. Soon after he arrived, a nurse approached him and said they were top-heavy with clergy and helpers. There weren’t enough patients to justify such a crowd of the well intentioned. Hardly any survivors were coming through the doors. It was gradually becoming apparent that nearly all those who had remained inside the towers were dead.

So Jordan left and walked toward Ground Zero. He passed firefighters who, recognizing his brown habit, paused to offer their condolences about Father Judge. Then, Jordan said, a couple of firefighters came up to him and said, “Father, here’s your gloves and here’s a mask. Get to work.”

Jordan met Judge in September 1976, when Judge was special assistant to the president of Siena College. Judge and Jordan had seen one another now and then and greeted one another in passing, but they barely knew each other. In Jordan’s final year, Judge approached Jordan on campus and asked what he was planning to do with his life. “I was thinking of becoming a lawyer,” Jordan said. “You’re never going to become a happy lawyer,” Judge replied. “Become a happy priest and join the Franciscans.”

As Judge walked away, Jordan thought about what Judge said. It was a rather bold invitation, especially coming from someone he hardly knew.

The next year, Jordan embarked on the novitiate at St. Francis Church in Brookline, Massachusetts, a yearlong retreat (Jordan calls it “spiritual boot camp”), and began the journey toward serving as a friar.

For the next three years, Jordan studied at the Washington Theological Union in Washington, D.C. The next summer, when Jordan was 26, he worked as chaplain at a large cancer treatment hospital near Buffalo, New York.

In 1987, Jordan began his doctoral studies. But having been raised in a Catholic neighborhood and having attended a Catholic high school and college, Jordan decided to try something different. He applied to the Andover Newton Theological Center in Massachusetts, the oldest Protestant theological school in the country. He graduated at the top of his class.


Two steel bars fell perpendicular to each other at the site and locked into the shape of a cross. Firefighters working there looked on it as a fitting tribute to mark the resting place of so many fellow firefighters lost there. (Photo by Tony Bruno.)

In January 2000, Jordan moved to New York. He joined the church of St. Francis of Assisi and found himself back in the same place as his mentor and friend, Father Judge.

Jordan had never had any involvement with the fire department before, nor had he ever endeavored to help with such a large-scale rescue mission.

“It was literally a baptism by fire,” he said.

Until the WTC site closed in May, Jordan still said mass nearly every Sunday morning at 10:30 underneath the iron cross at Ground Zero and ministered to his new friends—the rescue workers at Ground Zero—a few times each week.

“He has been inspirational,” said Captain Jack Corcoran of FDNY’s Special Operations Command. “He’s not your normal, sedate type of priest. He’s not afraid to say what’s on his mind, and neither am I. We relate.”

Jordan refused requests from City Hall to become the fire department’s official chaplain, to replace the hole left by Judge. The post went to another Franciscan priest, the Rev. Christopher Keenan, in December.

“I’m the guy at Ground Zero,” said Jordan. “I get along with the fire department, the police department, the construction companies, the Salvation Army, the Red Cross, Verizon, Con Edison, the Port Authority. If I just become the chaplain to one, I might alienate the other folks. So thanks, but no thanks.”

For Jordan, the work grew more strenuous as time passed. After two months of ministering daily at the site, the other friars began to notice the toll the work was taking on him. He had lost 12 close friends of his own, several of whom were employees of Cantor Fitzgerald, but he had taken no time to grieve for them. He was blessing grisly remains day after day, attending funerals and memorial services and wakes whenever the time allowed. Jordan grew moody and depressed.

“I can’t stand eulogies anymore,” said Jordan. “I can’t take anymore eulogies, I mean, there was one particular service for a firefighter in St. Patrick’s Cathedral; the mass went on an hour and a half and then an additional hour and 10 minutes just on eulogies. There were 10 eulogies. They went on and on, and I said, ‘I can’t take this anymore.’


Photo by FDNY Photo Unit

“The other Franciscans could tell just by looking at me,” said Jordan. “I seemed to be edgy, had mood swings. I was taking care of other people. I wasn’t taking care of myself.”

Jordan has resumed his focus on immigration. In his view, he had a mission to complete, just like the rescue workers and construction workers who have combed the site for bodies and, by the end of March, had removed nearly all of the debris left by the collapse.

“I did some of it in memory of Mychal Judge, but I probably did it more for me,” said Jordan. ” I wanted to do something to help people. I wanted to participate somehow. I was really privileged. I had a mission to do, and I’ve done it.”

REV. EVERETT WABST

A few days before September 11, Rev. Mychal Judge had asked his friend, the Rev. Everett Wabst, to visit a widow in Long Island. Wabst, who was an honorary fire department chaplain and ran the fire department’s 12-step anonymous programs along with Judge, willingly agreed.

On the morning of 9-11, Wabst was with the widow when he heard of the attack on the World Trade Center. He quickly finished their visit, jumped in his car, and drove through increasingly snarled traffic toward downtown Manhattan. By the time he reached the Brooklyn Bridge, the second tower was collapsing. When Wabst finally arrived at the site, he learned that Judge, his friend and colleague, was dead.

Wabst met Judge in 1988. Wabst was working part-time as a Baptist minister. Like Judge, Wabst had recently quit drinking. Wabst’s parents had both been alcoholics, and Wabst had begun to feel that he, too, was becoming addicted to alcohol. So he joined an anonymous 12-step program, where he was known only as “Everett W.” A few years later, he and Mychal Judge spearheaded an anonymous 12-step program specifically for firefighters. They organized workshops and retreats to help the firefighters work through their chemical addictions. Both believed that their role in the clergy was to relate to the firefighters on a human level, and they were not afraid to show their own flaws. They carried out their spiritual roles emphasizing the works of the church over the doctrine of the church. Judge and Wabst often worked this way in tandem.

Wabst married his high school sweetheart in 1968, when he was a pre-seminary student, a choir director, and a teacher. To complete his education, Wabst had to work for the money to pay his tuition. His wife’s father, a New York City firefighter, suggested that Wabst apply to the fire department to work while he went to school part-time.

In 1972, Wabst completed probationary school at the Fire Academy and was assigned to Engine Co. 28 at 34th Street and Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. After a few years, he transferred to Ladder Co. 11, the truck company in the same fire station.

For the next several years, Wabst worked as a firefighter during the week and as pastor on the weekends. He received a master’s degree in education from Richmond College and attended the New York Theological Seminary. In 1980, Wabst was asked to become permanent minister of the Park Baptist Church in Staten Island.

After Wabst was ordained, he was asked from time to time to perform informal chaplaincy duties for the fire department, such as performing marriage ceremonies for Roman Catholics who had been divorced and had not had their marriages annulled. Soon, Wabst’s duties extended to funerals; wakes; counseling; and, of course, his work with Judge in the 12-step programs. He never became an official fire department chaplain, since according to city labor regulations, he could not hold two positions—firefighter and chaplain—within the department at the same time. After Wabst retired from the fire department in 1999 because of a lung illness, he was named an honorary fire department chaplain.

Soon after Wabst arrived at the World Trade Center on 9-11, he met up with Delendick near St. Peter’s Church, where the bodies of Judge, Feehan, and Ganci had been laid out. Delendick told Wabst of his own narrow escape. Both men expected thousands of bodies to be brought from the rubble as the day progressed. They were deeply concerned that the bodies might get misplaced in the confusion. One of the Franciscan brothers approached Wabst and asked if he could get Judge’s body to the church of St. Francis on 31st Street. Wabst spoke to Dr. Kerry Kelly, FDNY’s chief medical officer, to arrange an ambulance, and waited.

Wabst thought of the box of 2,000 business-sized cards he’d been carrying in the back of his car, which he’d meant to give Father Judge that week. Printed on one side was the serenity prayer:

God
Grant me the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change…
the Courage to change the things that I can …
And the Wisdom to know the difference.

On the other side was a prayer that Judge had written.

Lord
Take me where you want me to go
Let me meet who you want me to meet
Tell me what you want me to say
And keep me out of your way.

Wabst recited the prayer written by Judge as Judge’s body was lifted into the ambulance. Then, Wabst climbed in the back of the ambulance that carried Judge’s body.

Delendick went in another ambulance with the bodies of Ganci and Feehan to transport them to the morgue.

When Wabst returned from escorting Judge’s body away from the site, he began distributing the cards with the prayer written by Judge to firefighters who were digging through the rubble.

“When I gave that prayer to each guy and I said his prayer,” said Wabst, “in spite of all that misery and carnage and brutality in the moment, they’d laugh at that last line—’and keep me out of the way’—and we’d start talking. So he left us even at that last moment with a tremendous gift and a way to open the guys up and get through it. To be able to have a little chuckle in the midst of all that and to pray with someone in the middle of all that and to be able to change the nature of what you were thinking was quite amazing. His prayer did just that.”

Wabst worked through that first night helping to set up a triage center near the site to aid the injured survivors. As that night wore on, hardly anyone came in.

“We realized we weren’t going to be bringing anyone out,” said Wabst. “There were no patients in the triage center. People came in with bumps, bruises, and things of that nature. But there were no casualties in the center itself. It was a very eerie feeling to know that so many people had died and were wounded and not to be able to do anything. We couldn’t bring anyone out to take care of them, either to minister to them physically, as the doctors would have done, or spiritually, as I would have done. To be there with so many good people—doctors, nurses, surgeons—all there and ready, and no one coming out. It was just a sickening feeling.”

Wabst continued to work daily alongside firefighters at the WTC site, walking around, talking with fellow firefighters and just being present for anyone who wanted to speak with him. As the months passed, he blessed more than 100 bodies, civilians and firefighters, too many to keep count. He saw men experiencing various stages of grief—anger, rage, disbelief, depression, and frustration.

“It’s a very heavy load,” said Wabst. “We’re not there just cleaning up a mess. We are digging out the bodies of our fellow firefighters. Removing civilians from a scene is something that is part of our job. It happens on a regular basis all year long. It’s something we are fairly steeled to. But the removal of fellow firefighters is fairly rare. When we’re removing firefighters, it’s a very emotional thing, and here where it’s such an unspeakable number. The sheer number this time leaves us without any precedent for handling it. We’ve never done anything of this nature before, of this magnitude for this length of time.

“I think that for me as a clergyman it is one of the most blessed things I’ve ever been involved in. I’ve been involved in the ministry since the late ’60s. I can’t say there’s been any other time that I’ve been able to see and feel and hear the depth of the appreciation of the people I am ministering to.”

But, Wabst said, for most of the firefighters, the ordeal is not over. While there are still firefighters whose bodies have not been recovered, for them, the words ‘moving on’ don’t carry much meaning.

“We have that reopening of the wounds every time we find someone,” said Wabst. “Every time we find another body, it’s September 11 all over again.”

Wabst also began to notice the effect that his work was having on him personally. Like many of the other firefighters at the site, he was driven to keep busy at every moment, afraid to let himself slow down.

One day in January, when he was supposed to be looking after his grandson for the day, the boy’s grandmother from the other side of the family came by unexpectedly and took him for the day instead. Wabst found himself with nothing to do.

“I found myself just completely incapable of doing anything,” said Wabst. “I sat there and stared at the computer and really didn’t accomplish anything. I was in a numb state, not thinking about anything. No emotions, no feelings. My body just said, ‘Stop everything.’ I was conscious of the fact, and it annoyed me that I was in that state. I was at odds with it. My body wasn’t really wanting to rest, but my mind didn’t want to let it do anything.”

Wabst finally took a three-week vacation in February and continued his work alongside firefighters at the site as he resumed his involvement with the 12-step programs he had helped to found. He keeps a close eye on the healing process of his fellow firefighters, a group which he fears may face its toughest tests once the recovery operations are complete.

“We’re at a point where we’re at different levels,” said Wabst. “Some firefighters have already returned to healthy behavior. They are close enough spiritually to their churches and families; they know there has to be a balance. Other guys just can’t find a balance.”

During the night, Wabst climbed up on the twisted beams to a vantage point another couple of stories higher. He was exhausted. When he looked down over the site, he saw thousands, literally thousands, of people working under the spotlights, all digging with their hands. He had seen a change in the men’s faces when he said the prayers over the bodies. The anger and hatred that contorted their visages faded away as respect for the ceremony took over, and the men took solace in the knowledge that their brothers were in a better place, working as hard as they were. Wabst stayed with the men until the last body in that cluster was removed, at about 4:30 a.m. the next day.—“How Three Clergymen Survived the Ultimate Test of Faith,” © Kerry Sheridan, 2002

KERRY SHERIDAN is a freelance writer based in New York. She is currently working on a book about the experiences of the Fire Department of New York’s bagpipe band covering more than 450 funerals in the aftermath of 9-11, which will be released next fall.


“The Healing Cross of Ground Zero”

At daybreak on September 15, a construction worker named Frank Silecchia, 47, witnessed a perfectly formed cross in the midst of the wreckage near Building 6 of the World Trade Center. It was created when two steel bars fell perpendicular to each other and locked into a cross shape. Silecchia had been volunteering at the site for the past three days; that night, they had recovered three mutilated bodies. When Silecchia saw the cross, he wept openly, feeling that he had witnessed a sign from God.

On September 23, Silecchia found Father Brian Jordan distributing Holy Communion to rescue workers at Ground Zero. He brought Father Jordan to the area where the cross stood. Silecchia had scrawled “God’s House” in spray paint on the surrounding walls and structures that remained. When Jordan glimpsed at the cross, he felt what he described as “a deeply religious experience.” Silecchia said Jordan told him he had been searching for some symbol of faith in the midst of the massive devastation, and now it appeared that such a symbol had been found. In a reflection Jordan wrote afterward, he said, “For Christians, the cross represents the pain and suffering of the crucified Jesus Christ. It also represents the redemption of the risen Jesus and redemption for all humanity.”

On October 3, Father Jordan, a Franciscan priest, arranged for the steel cross to be moved to a new location, atop a concrete median on West Street between Vesey and Liberty streets. The next day, October 4, was the Feast of St. Francis. Jordan chose that day to bless the cross because of Francis’ devotion to the cross. Francis is also the patron saint of ecology and the earth.

A crowd of 400 people gathered around what Jordan had named the “Healing Cross of Ground Zero.” As Jordan moved around all four sides of the cross, following the Rite of Christian Blessings, he invoked Psalm 23. Then, a firefighter, a Port Authority police officer, an iron worker, and a construction company official each gave testimonies of their faith.

“I believe the greater reward in life is to be with the Lord,” said Silecchia, who brought countless rescue workers to the area to witness the cross before it was moved to its present location, atop a concrete median just inside the site at Cortlandt and Church streets. “In the evil that all this tyranny was caused by, to discover such a spiritual icon that could lift so many spirits. All you need to see is one person being helped by the structure. I saw so many. It made me feel better every time.

“After dealing with this deluge, I don’t fear death,” Silecchia added. “I look forward to it.”

“Here we had all this damage to the earth, and here was a place we felt was comfortable to do a blessing,” said Jordan. “That was a great occasion on October 4. It was great consolation. We’ve seen evil at its worst, but we’ve seen goodness at its best.”—“How Three Clergymen Survived the Ultimate Test of Faith,” © Kerry Sheridan, 2002


“Firefighters Preparing To Do Battle With The Evil That Caused This”

Rev. Everett Wabst used imagery to assuage the firefighters when they broke for a drink of water or sat for a moment’s rest. He understood the firefighters’ anger. He’d tell the men that their brothers were not lounging around in heaven. Nor were their spirits still in the battered corpses they’d left behind. They were active in heaven, all fully armed and ready to fight.

“Firefighters can’t imagine one another doing nothing,” said Wabst. “So the image of them preparing to do battle with the evil that had caused this, I think, was also a comfortable image.”—“How Three Clergymen Survived the Ultimate Test of Faith,” © Kerry Sheridan, 2002

Firefighters who knew Father Mychal Judge remember his zest for the job and the superhuman zeal with which he pursued it. He was available at all hours. If anyone needed him, they knew they could just call. Judge seemed to be present at every fire department ceremony. He remembered each of the men by name, performed weddings and baptisms, and brought his Irish-inflected humor to the most melancholy firefighter funerals. He also served as special chaplain to the department’s Emerald Society pipes and drums band.

“He always knew what to say, always had the right words,” said band chairman Joe Murphy. “That was the talent he had. He fit like a glove with us.”—“How Three Clergymen Survived the Ultimate Test of Faith,” © Kerry Sheridan, 2002

So many of those left behind, and the clergy who minister to them, are struggling with many of the same bewildering questions: Without a body, how do you mark a death or, more importantly, a life? How do you create new rituals within the tenets of your religion and culture to adjust to such unforeseen circumstances? “Whatever religion people may be, having the body gives people some real sense of consolation,” said Jim Cunningham, pastor of St. Bartholomew’s Church in Elmhurst, Queens. “I would want it myself. But if you look at it from a religious perspective, the soul leaves the body and is with God.”—“Rites of Grief, Without a Body to Cry Over,” Somini Sengupta with Al Baker, The New York Times, Sept. 27, 2001

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