Father Mychal Judge, chaplain to New York firefighters and unofficial “gay saint,” died helping others in the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. He was killed by flying debris while praying and administering sacraments at the World Trade Center. Father Mychal (1933-2001) was the first recorded victim of 9/11.
New memorials continue to be created in his honor, and two are posted today for the first time at the Jesus in Love Blog: a portrait by Tobias Haller and a plaque at the Legacy Walk in Chicago.
Father Mychal responded quickly when extremists flew hijacked planes into the twin towers. He rushed with firefighters into the north tower right after the first plane hit. Refusing to be evacuated, he prayed and gave sacraments as wreckage crashed outside. He saw dozens of bodies hit the plaza outside as people jumped to their deaths. His final prayer, repeated over and over, was “Jesus, please end this right now! God, please end this!”
While he was praying, Father Mychal was struck and killed in a storm of flying steel and concrete that exploded when the south tower collapsed. Father Mychal was designated as Victim 0001 because his was the first body recovered at the scene. More than 2,500 people from many nationalities and walks of life were killed. Thousands more escaped the buildings safely.
After Father Mychal’s death, some of his friends revealed that he considered himself a gay man. He had a homosexual orientation, but by all accounts he remained faithful to his vow of celibacy as a Roman Catholic priest of the Franciscan order.
The charismatic, elderly priest was a long-term member of Dignity, the oldest and largest national lay movement of LGBT Catholics and their allies. Father Mychal voiced disagreement with the Vatican’s condemnation of homosexuality, and found ways to welcome Dignity’s AIDS ministry despite a ban by church leaders. He defied a church boycott of the first gay-inclusive St. Patrick’s Day parade in Queens, showing up in his habit and granting news media interviews.
Many people, both inside and outside the LGBT community, call Father Mychal a saint. He has not been canonized yet by his own Roman Catholic Church, but some feel that he has already become a saint by popular acclamation, and the Orthodox-Catholic Church of America did declare officially declare him a saint. Here is a round-up of artwork, films and books about him.
A smiling Mychal Judge with a halo was sketched by Tobias Haller, an iconographer, author, composer, and vicar of Saint James Episcopal Church in the Bronx. He is the author of “Reasonable and Holy: Engaging Same-Sexuality.” Haller enjoys expanding the diversity of icons available by creating icons of LGBTQ people and other progressive holy figures as well as traditional saints. He and his spouse were united in a church wedding more than 30 years ago and a civil ceremony after same-sex marriage became legal in New York.
In 2014 Father Mychal was inducted into the Legacy Walk in a Chicago. The outdoor public display celebrates LGBT history through a series of biographical bronze plaques with laser-etched photos located in a traditionally gay neighborhood along North Halsted Street.
In June 2015 a larger-than-life bronze statue was dedicated to him at St. Joseph’s Park in East Rutherford, New Jersey, across the street from St. Joseph’s church, where he worked for several years. It was sculpted by nationally known artist Brian Hanlon, who has sculpted more than 300 public art pieces of religious, civic and sports figures.
A dramatic icon of Father Mychal against a backdrop of the burning buildings was painted by Father William Hart McNichols. He shows Father Mychal with St. Francis of Assisi as the World Trade Center burns behind them. The text that accompanies the icon describes Father Mychal as a Passion Bearer who “takes on the oncoming violence rather than returning it… choosing solidarity with the unprotected.” McNichols is a Roman Catholic priest based in New Mexico. He has a deep connection to New York City because he worked at an AIDS hospice there in the 1980s.
The priest’s connection with others is emphasized in “(Saint) Mychal Judge being Welcomed by the Franciscan Saints” by JR Leveroni. Deliberately painted in the primitive style of folk art, it goes beyond the iconic news photo, sometimes called the “American Pieta,” that shows firefighters carrying Father Mychal’s limp corpse at Ground Zero. In Leveroni’s vision, saints replace the firefighters to carry Mychal onward to heaven. He holds his red firemen’s helmet in his left hand. Leveroni has also painted gay martyrs Matthew Shepard and Saint Sebastian together. A variety of male nudes and religious paintings can be seen on Leveroni’s website (warning: male nudity).
Another icon of Father Mychal was done by Brother Robert Lentz, is a Franciscan friar known for his innovative and LGBT-positive icons. He is stationed at Holy Name College in Silver Spring, Maryland. Both McNichols and Lentz have faced controversy for painting gay-affirming icons. They are two of the 11 artists whose life and work are featured in “Art That Dares: Gay Jesus, Woman Christ, and More ” by Kittredge Cherry.
Stories from the life of Father Mychal are presented in the book, “Mychal’s Prayer: Praying with Father Mychal Judge” by Salvatore Sapienza, a former monk who worked with Father Mychal to build St. Francis AIDS Ministry in New York City. The book mixes prayers with stories from the chaplain’s life. It begins with Father Mychal’s own words, a text that has come to be known simply as “Mychal’s Prayer”:
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.
For an excerpt from the book, see my previous post 10 years later: Mychal Judge, gay saint of 9/11. Sapienza is also the author of Seventy Times Seven: A Novel, a novel about a young Catholic brother torn between his sexuality and his spirituality as an out and proud gay man.
The film Saint of 9/11 – The True Story of Father Mychal Judge is a complete and uplifting documentary on Father Mychal’s life, including his gay orientation and his support for LGBT rights. Its producers include Brendan Fay, who directed “Taking a Chance on God,” a biopic about gay priest John McNeill.
Another gay man who died heroically helping others in the Sept. 11 attack was rugby champion Mark Bingham, who lost his life while fighting hijackers on Flight 93. His story is told in my previous post at this link.
On the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, may these images and stories inspire people with renewed dedication to peace and service to humanity. An excellent interfaith selection of prayers for peace is available at WorldPrayers.org. It includes prayers by Father Mychal as well as Sister Joan Chittister, Dr. Maya Angelou, Rabbi Harold Kushner, Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Dr. Jane Goodall, Rumi, Lao-Tse, Mahatma Gandhi, Muhammad, Jesus and many more.
Mychal Judge is the first recorded victim of 9/11 — and also the first saint in the LGBTQ Saints series GLBT Saints series by Kittredge Cherry at the Jesus in Love Blog. The series began on Sept. 11, 2009. It has grown to include many traditional and alternative saints, people in the Bible, LGBTQ martyrs, authors, theologians, religious leaders, artists, deities and other figures of special interest to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender and queer (LGBTQ) people and our allies.
Top image credit: “Holy Passion Bearer Mychal Judge and St. Francis of Assisi” by Father William Hart McNichols
The Mychal Judge icon is available on cards, plaques, T-shirts, mugs, candles, mugs, and more at TrinityStores.com
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