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Saint of 9/11: Remembering NY Fire Chaplain Mychal Judge, Gay Catholic Priest Killed at WTC

StorySeptember 06, 2011
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Hundreds of people marched the streets of New York City Sunday to honor the memory of Fr. Mychal Judge, the first recorded victim of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center. Judge, a New York City Fire Department chaplain, was 68 years old when he was killed while giving last rites to a firefighter at the scene. He was a larger-than-life figure, with admirers and friends across the political and social spectrum, and whose life is commemorated in the acclaimed documentary, “Saint of 9/11.” The film is notable for its effort to portray a half-hidden secret about the priest: he was gay. In his private diaries, the revered Catholic priest wrote of how “I thought of my gay self and how the people I meet never get to know me fully.” We speak with Brendan Fay, longtime gay rights activist and independent filmmaker who produced “Saint of 9/11,” and play excerpts from the documentary as well as his upcoming film, “Remembering Mychal.” [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Hundreds of people marched through the streets of New York City on Sunday to honor the memory of the first recorded victim of the September 11th, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center: Reverend Mychal Judge, New York City Fire Department chaplain, 68 years old when he was killed while giving last rites to a firefighter at the scene. A famous photograph of Father Judge captured the world’s attention after 9/11 when it showed his body being pulled from the rubble after the attack. Firefighters, police officers and their families, friends of the Franciscan priest, and well-wishers came together for that four-hour Walk of Remembrance through the streets of Manhattan.

The person who has organized this march for the last nine years is Steven McDonald. Steven McDonald is well known throughout New York. He was the police detective who was shot and paralyzed in 1986. He led the march. It was hard to catch up with him on his wheelchair, and I only had my iPhone, so it’s not great sound, but listen carefully. Steven McDonald said Father Judge played a very important role in his life, as he helped him reconcile with his shooter, who called him and his wife from prison, and Steven McDonald said that they forgave him. Listen very carefully.

STEVEN McDONALD: Father Mychal was a wonderful human being, very loving, caring, forgiving, a real eyewitness to faith in God in his life. And that’s why we’re gathered here today. His witness to all of us was, follow God and to listen to God.

AMY GOODMAN: When did you meet him?

STEVEN McDONALD: Three weeks after I was shot.

AMY GOODMAN: And what did he do for you?

STEVEN McDONALD: He, more than anything, that—reaffirmed, reaffirmed my faith in God, and that it was important to me to forgive the boy who shot me. And I’m alive today because of that.

AMY GOODMAN: And what about the boy? And what about the person who shot you?

STEVEN McDONALD: He ended up going to jail, and from jail he called and apologized to my wife and me. And we became friends.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Steven McDonald, talking about the role that Father Judge played in his life. He met him a couple of months after McDonald was shot in 1986 and was friends with him for 15 years after that, until Father Judge died at the World Trade Center attacks on September 11th. He was a larger-than-life figure, with admirers and friends across the political and social spectrum, his life commemorated in the acclaimed documentary Saint of 9/11.

MYCHAL McNICHOLS: His whole ministry was about love. He loved the fire department, and they loved him.

UNIDENTIFIED: Mayor Giuliani said to Mychal, “Come with us.” And he said, “No, I have to stay with my men.”

UNIDENTIFIED: Such a striking photograph. These big men, obviously in anguish. It reminded me a lot of the theater.

UNIDENTIFIED: Fire Department chaplain, Father Mychal Judge, and our sister—

CAPT. KENNETH ERB: He was our spiritual leader, but he was our buddy, too.

JOHN McNEILL: Mychal never knew he was a saint. Mychal thought he was one of the worst sinners.

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON: He lit up the White House as he lit up every place he ever found himself.

UNIDENTIFIED: And he was the king of the city.

UNIDENTIFIED: His parting gift to us was his dedication and his compassion and his heroism to stay with us.

UNIDENTIFIED: Mychal said, when we lose someone we love, we should just pray for everything they brought into our lives.

BILL CLINTON: All of us who were privileged to know him, we have a special loss.

FATHER MYCHAL JUDGE: You have no idea what God is calling you to. But He needs you. He needs me. He needs all of us.

UNIDENTIFIED: There was a picture one time of a full-length Jesus Christ, the same height as the Empire State Building. That was Mychal in New York, you know? He was huge. He’d be vastly amused at the idea of being a saint.

AMY GOODMAN: That was an excerpt from the documentary Saint of 9/11 about Father Mychal Judge, the first recorded victim of the September 11th attacks, the film notable for its effort to portray a half-hidden, half-known secret about the priest: that he was gay. In his private diaries, the revered Catholic priest, the Franciscan friar, wrote how, quote, “I thought of my gay self and how the people I meet never get to know me fully.”

Well, to talk more about Father Judge, we’re joined now by Brendan Fay, an independent filmmaker who produced Saint of 9/11. He is also the editor of a forthcoming book of letters and photos of Father Mychal Judge and is producing the film—is directing the upcoming film Remembering Mychal.

Welcome to Democracy Now!

BRENDAN FAY: Thank you, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: We spoke, Brendan Fay, a month after the attacks, on Democracy Now!, and we were talking about the fact that this fact of Father Mychal’s life was not being talked about, when we were talking about the heroes of 9/11.

BRENDAN FAY: That’s right. I think, in a way, it’s very important that we think of the full humanity of all of the people who died on 9/11. And Mychal Judge has left this legacy. Of course, as a Catholic priest, he could not come out publicly, but he was out with whomever he could trust or he thought it would help. He was, of course, one of the priests at Dignity New York, a Catholic organization for gay and lesbian Catholics. And we met every week. He was one of the priests. He ministered to our committee during the AIDS crisis, when there were few priests available to our community. He marched in the gay pride parade, just as much as he did in the St. Patrick’s parade. He marched with the Saint Francis AIDS Ministry. And I think Mychal wanted so much to live life as honestly as he possibly could. And that’s what made him different. He didn’t live the double life. In fact, when you look at his checks—I was amazed at his wake, when people came up to me. Not only did the inclusive St. Patrick’s parade receive a check from him, because that was an important message, that all our cultural events and life ought to be inclusive and open to everybody, so he supported groups like GMHC, PFLAG, Dignity New York, St. Pat’s for All, because this was an important issue for him.

AMY GOODMAN: In your forthcoming film, Remembering Mychal, Brendan Fay records many of the testimonies delivered at the memorial service for Father Judge a month after his death. Some people spoke openly for the first time about Judge’s sexual orientation.

UNIDENTIFIED: And he was a consummate priest, because a priest with his maturity, wisdom, knew that you lay down your life for anybody. And he did that for many of you in the program. He did that for his gay brothers and sisters, at the risk of losing that which he thought was most precious to him. He didn’t flinch in telling a family whose 16-year-old son was coming out that he, too, was gay, because he didn’t want that kid to do harm to himself or to grow up in shame.

AMY GOODMAN: As the New York City Fire Department chaplain, Father Mychal was widely revered. In another clip of the forthcoming film Remembering Mychal, Brendan Fay records tributes paid by New York City firefighters.

TOM RYAN: As I was standing there in front of the church, the pallbearers from the firehouse next to me had carried his body out of the church and down the steps, and then, over in front of the firehouse, turned around and started heading back to the church. And then, right in front of me, they faltered for a moment, and it seemed like they were going to drop the casket. So I just jumped out and grabbed onto the casket. And the fellow who was standing there jumped to the side. And just, it was such a message to me that here are these people who are trying to blame gays and lesbians, and here I was a gay firefighter, and I was carrying my gay priest, for his final trip through his church. And it was an incredible message. And there was—if anybody could take anything from the September 11th act, you need to take the fact that everybody counts.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Tom Ryan, a founder of Fire Flag, openly gay firefighters’ association in New York. Final comments, Brendan Fay? We have 15 seconds.

BRENDAN FAY: I think, on 9/11, the one thing we can take from Mychal Judge is, in the midst of this hell and war and evil and violence, here is this man who directs us to another possible path as human beings: we can choose the path of compassion and nonviolence and reconciliation. Mychal Judge had a heart as big as New York. There was room for everybody. And I think that’s the lesson, if anything, we can take from him, is that—will we choose the path of more compassionate living as human beings in our city and in our world?

AMY GOODMAN: Brendan Fay, thanks so much for being with us. And that does it for our show, as we launch our series this week on the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.

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