The final resting place for the first official casualty of the Sept. 11 attacks is a patch of weedy grass just off a busy New Jersey roadway that is also home to a laundry, a wig store and an auto body shop that proclaims itself the Dent Wizard.
Also nearby is a former bank building where one of the 9/11 al Qaeda operatives stopped to check on his ATM account balance two months before carrying out America’s most devastating terrorist attack.
Such is the final stop in the long and winding life of the Rev. Mychal Judge.
Twenty years after the 9/11 attacks, Judge is still touted as a vivacious Catholic priest and heroic chaplain of the New York City fire department who refused to flee to safety after commercial jetliners hijacked by suicide jihadists crashed into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan.
Judge, then 68, clad in a white firefighters’ helmet and black coat, remained in the lobby and mezzanine of the Trade Center’s North Tower, praying for firefighters who rushed past him and up the stairs of the wounded building and for office workers plunging to their deaths outside, their bodies exploding like blood-filled balloons on the concrete plaza.
When the nearby South Tower collapsed, Judge was killed by the tsunami of rubble that burst into the North Tower lobby. The photo of his lifeless body being carried from the rubble by grief-stricken emergency workers has been compared to Michelangelo’s “Pieta.”
He was not the first to perish that day. But the New York City Medical Examiner listed his name at the top of its roster of the dead. His friends insist that such a listing was entirely appropriate. In their minds, Mychal Judge was No. 1 in many aspects of life — and death.
He was, however, a complicated man. Likewise, his legacy is tangled.
Judge was reportedly gay and a recovering alcoholic who occasionally wore a diamond stud in one ear, once styled his hair in the 1980s with a rat tail dangling over his brown Franciscan friar’s robe and made space on his backside for a shamrock tattoo.
At the same time, his friends also describe him as a deeply devout Catholic who began his days kneeling in silent meditation. He regularly prayed the rosary, carried $1 bills in his pocked to dole out to homeless people during his daily walks and volunteered to minister to dying AIDS patients by washing their feet and kissing their foreheads.
His name now adorns a college dormitory and a ferry that carries office workers across New York harbor. Meanwhile, the prayer he wrote for his own inspiration and guidance has become a mantra among Catholics devoted to social activism:
Some Catholics see him as a saint — and are actively pushing the Vatican to canonize him. Others, disturbed by his gay rights ministry and pop culture fame, just want him to rest in peace in a grave that his admirers have turned into an informal shrine.
Judge’s headstone is adorned with flags and trinkets amid the plots of other Franciscan friars at Holy Sephulchre Cemetery in Totowa, New Jersey.
Needless to say, Judge is something of an outlier — in life and in death. His story reflects much of the mystery and awe that still frames the 9/11 narrative even 20 years later. It also underscores that so much of the legacy of that tragic day is still so unsettled.
As a testament to the diverse paths he walked in nearly a half-century as a priest, two of the most prominent advocates for Judge’s sainthood are a gay rights activist and a former chief with the New York City fire department.
“He was the most spiritual person I ever met,” said now-retired FDNY Chief John Dunne of Staten Island, New York, who emerged as one of the first to petition Catholic officials to make Judge a saint.
“You immediately had faith and trust in him,” Dunne said of Judge. “He spoke from the heart. He also had a great sense of humor.”
“The love for this man has only grown over the years,” added Brendan Fay, a gay rights activist from Queens, New York, who produced the 2006 documentary on Judge, titled appropriately, “Saint of 9/11.”
Mychal Judge is a legend — can he be a saint?
Chris Pedota, NorthJersey.com
‘He was forever giving you a blessing’
But Mychal Judge’s legend did not begin on Sept. 11, 2001, when the horrors of international terrorism struck America so forcefully.
Decades before, when he still went by “Michael” and had not yet adapted the traditional Irish spelling of his first name, Judge earned a reputation as a highly influential priest on the suburban streets of northern New Jersey.
Whether it was a funeral, a wedding or a beer-y backyard barbecue, Judge often showed up, wrapping what many remember his unusually large hands across people’s shoulders and often injecting humor into even the most somber discussions.
“He was a very striking, handsome guy — effervescent, welcoming and warm,” said the Rev. Christopher Keenan, who grew up in Wood-Ridge, New Jersey, and was recruited by Judge into the Franciscans while he worked at a truck warehouse.
“He had these gigantic hands,” said Keenan, who succeeded Judge as the FDNY Catholic chaplain. “He was forever giving you a blessing.”
“He was a very regular human being,” said the Rev. Kevin Mullen, who first met Judge in East Rutherford, New Jersey, and now is the leader of all Franciscan priests in New York and New Jersey. “He was a person you loved to laugh with and cry with. When you met him, he looked you right in the eye. The world around you stopped. He engaged you.”
“Everyone felt he was their best friend and closest ally and confident,” said the Rev. Michael Duffy, who now runs a soup kitchen in Philadelphia but also knew Judge in East Rutherford and was selected to eulogize him at his funeral.
“When someone would be telling their sad story, he would put his hand on their forearm or hold their hand,” Duffy said. “If a couple told him they were going to have a baby, he would put both arms around them with his head between them and pray a blessing for health of new baby.”
“Even those who weren’t Catholic loved him,” said James Cassella, a former mayor of East Rutherford, New Jersey. “He didn’t care what your religion was. If you had a problem, he was there.”
Judge also had a knack for showing up at crucial moments.
On a sunny day in May 1974, Judge, then part of a team of Franciscans assigned to St. Joseph’s Church in East Rutherford, New Jersey, heard that a man was threatening to kill his wife and daughter in a home in the neighboring town of Carlstadt.
Judge, in his Franciscan robes, rushed to the scene. Along with a state superior court judge and a police detective, Judge pleaded with the man to lay down his gun and free his wife and daughter, reportedly saying, “Let’s just have a cup of coffee.” Photographs even show Judge on a ladder hitching up his Franciscan robe, speaking to the man in a second-floor window of his home.
Eventually, the man gave up. Along with the judge and detective, Judge escorted the man from the home.
Such hands-on involvement later became the hallmark of Judge’s ground-breaking ministry to AIDS patients.
As the disease swept through New York City’s gay community in the late 1980s, Judge was asked to visit a gay man who was near death at a hospital. At first, friends say, Judge was reluctant. Many gays resented the stern condemnation of their lifestyle by Catholic bishops. Only a few priests, in turn, ventured into AIDS wards of hospitals, fearing they might become infected.
Judge, who had transferred to St. Francis of Assisi Church in midtown Manhattan, walked into the man’s hospital room. Rather than talking, Judge reportedly reached under the hospital blankets and began to rub the man’s feet.
The simple gesture became Judge’s calling card. For the next decade, Judge became a regular at many hospitals, unafraid to touch AIDS patients. In one case, he even picked up an emaciated AIDS patient who was about to die, cradling him in his arms and praying softly while kissing his forehead while assuring him that he was heading to heaven.
Judge later emerged as a comfort to the families in the summer of 1996 who lost loved ones when the Paris-bound TWA Flight 800 exploded off Long Island after taking off from John F. Kennedy International Airport. A photo of Judge, in his Franciscan robes and standing on a Long Island beach, became an iconic symbol of the sense of loss for many families.
“He was the Babe Ruth of priests,” said former New York Daily News columnist Michael Daly, who befriended Judge and wrote a biography in 2008, “The Book of Mychal: The Surprising Life and Heroic Death of Mychal Judge.”
Daly, who now writes for the Daily Beast, said Judge once ended a funeral for two brothers who died of AIDS by launching into a rendition of “God Bless America.”
“Everybody sang,” Daly recalls. “What Mychal was saying to the gay people there was that it’s your country too. You’re America.”
Daly, who also regarded Judge as a personal spiritual advisor, described “Mychal’s theology” as a desire to find God in everyone.
“Our duty is to recognize that in other people, and strengthen that that in other people,” Daly said, adding that Judge’s legacy “is that spirituality is an act of the imagination.”
Daly said he struggled in writing Judge’s biography, however. He even delayed finishing the book for several years as he wrestled with the question of whether he should reveal that Judge was gay.
Judge had reportedly told a few friends he was gay — and celibate. But Judge never spoke publicly about it. And many priests and others who knew him still insist they never suspected he might be gay.
Daly said he finally decided to reveal Judge’s sexual orientation after he found a passage in Judge’s private diary in which the priest discussed the fact that he was gay.
“I couldn’t write about his life without mentioning that,” Daly said. “Mychal had not decided to tell the world about that. But after talking to his sisters and reading some of his diaries, I decided he would want me to go ahead and do the book.”
‘A slam dunk’
Judge’s sexual orientation remains as one of the most talked-about footnotes in his life story. It’s also looms a potential obstacle to his possible sainthood.
Kathleen Cummings, the director of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, said Judge’s sainthood should be “a slam dunk” considering the way he died and his well-documented spirituality and ministries.
But Cummings, who is also a professor of history and American Studies at Notre Dame, predicted that sainthood for Judge may not come for decades.
“We have to take the long view here,” Cummings said, adding that the process could take another “50 years when I’m assuming the Catholic church has a much healthier attitude toward sexuality.”
The Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and author who has written extensively on sainthood and Catholicism’s struggle to come to terms with homosexuality, said he doubts that Judge will be declared a saint anytime soon.
“As Catholics we believe in the action of the Holy Spirit,” Martin said. “So if he’s meant to be a saint, it will happen. But it may be too early in the process.”
So far, neither the New York Archdiocese nor the Franciscans have launched a formal request with the Vatican to declare Judge a saint, though New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan has publicly extolled Judge’s virtues.
At least two groups — both of them gay rights organizations — told the USA TODAY Network they have been contacted by the Vatican for background information on Judge.
Reached at the Vatican, the Rev. Luis F. Escalante, who investigates proposals for sainthood as a church “postulator,” said he believed that Judge should be a solid candidate for canonization, He pointed to a 2017 change in church rules that opens the door to sainthood for Catholics who die while serving others — what the church calls an “offering of life.”
But Escalante said Judge’s possible sainthood would likely be delayed because his religious order of priests — the Franciscan Friars — told Escalante that they would not actively support the proposal at this time. As a result, Escalante said it may take more pressure from ordinary Catholics and others to eventually persuade the Vatican to declare Judge a saint.
“Now it’s approaching its 20th anniversary,” Escalante wrote in an email to NorthJersey.com and the USA Today Network. “My proposal and my wish to collaborate is still alive. The negative decision of the Friars cannot be seen as a preclusion to going ahead with Fr. Judge’s cause. It’s just a challenge to (the) American people.”
One thing for certain, the list of Judge’s admirers continues to grown.
As she pondered a term paper topic for a “Sanctity and Society” class at Notre Dame several years ago, Sophia Sheehy of Ridgewood, New Jersey, found herself drawn to Mychal Judge.
“The more I learned about him, the more I grew to love him,” said Sheehy, 22, who graduated from Notre Dame several months ago and is volunteering on a farm in West Virginia before starting graduate school. “I just think he connects so many parts of the church and the world.”
In particular, Sheehy said she was especially surprised how Judge was able to befriend so many different people, with divergent political views.
“I can’t think of another person today who would be supported by Rudy Giuliani and Hillary Clinton but that was Mychal Judge,” Sheehy said.
“There is so little we could agree on today,” she added. “But at least we could agree on that.”
Mike Kelly is an award-winning columnist for NorthJersey.com. To get unlimited access to his insightful thoughts on how we live life in New Jersey, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.
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