St. Mary's Parish in Middletown, N.J., 10 miles south of Manhattan, lost 26 parishioners on Sept. 11.
That's more people than the entire town lost in World War II. Another 50 of pastor Father John Dobrosky's parishioners have lost relatives who are presumed dead. The priest spoke with Register features correspondent Tim Drake about the community's loss.
What were you doing when the World Trade Center was attacked?
I had just come down the stairs ready for a day's work when someone told me to come watch the television. Our secretaries said that a plane had hit the World Trade Center and we could see that the tower was burning. Our jaws dropped. Then we saw another plane hit and we knew that something was terribly wrong. As the news flashes blurted out reports about another plane hitting the Pentagon I told the secretaries, “Ladies, we had better brace for a terrible day.”
How did your parish respond to the tragedy?
People were streaming to church for refuge throughout the day, flocking to our two daily Masses, and attending eucharistic adoration, where many joined in spontaneous prayer. We use an old convent, which used to house 40 nuns, as a visitation house. There we set up some 54 volunteers — clinicians, retired nurses, social workers, a psychologist and our priests and nuns to meet families’ needs. Thanks to these volunteers, the center has been going around the clock non-stop.
It's been overwhelming. Usually it's like pulling teeth to get anyone to do something, but I think people realize that this is something that could have happened to them. It's been a big wake-up call. So many people have said, “I'm willing to do whatever you need.”
When did it first sink in that St. Mary's was going to have so many casualties?
At first we had no idea. During spontaneous prayer in the chapel our pastoral associate realized that there were quite a number of people that were either parishioners or directly related to parishioners for whom people were praying.
Either that afternoon or the next day, Bishop John Smith called the parish to inquire about numbers. When he heard our number he said that we might have been the hardest hit and he wanted to come down to celebrate Mass.
The following Sunday we had about 1,600 people attend the bishop's Mass. We also held an evening prayer service, which was open to the community at large, which was attended by about 900 people. It was a wonderful expression of neighbors praying constantly.
Did the majority of missing parishioners work in the World Trade Center or were they rescue workers?xs
We are slowly finding out who was who. I believe that a majority of the people worked for the Port Authority. Others worked for brokerage houses.
How, as pastor, do you deal with so great a loss among your faithful?
I think the crisis, as it's ongoing, blends one day into another. I haven't had time to check my emotions; I'm just trying to meet the needs of the people. Each individual, each family, each situation, and each funeral is different. Nothing that we learn quite prepares us for something of this magnitude.
The one good thing that we have going is that we are a community of believers — family, neighbors and community. That has helped. Our health ministry has also helped enormously. The presence of the priests and the sisters has made a big difference.
How is the loss affecting your parish school?
Walking through our grammar school and high school we visited each classroom and asked students whether they personally knew someone that had either died or was missing. Eighty percent of the hands went up in every classroom. Connections run deep. Many students lost aunts or uncles or cousins. We are in this together. It's important to say that those people that I knew or knew of, that were lost, were professional people with very successful careers. They used their God-given talents to reach their levels of achievement. These people were executives, but they knew where they stood spiritually. They put their children through Catholic schools, they volunteered at our church fair, they painted classrooms, and they hung drapes.
Many of them had a chance to get out of the building, but they made sure that those people under their care got out first. Isn't that the ultimate Gospel value? Giving up your life for a friend? When I preach, I parallel that act of evil [the attack], which lasted about three hours, with Christ's time on the cross. I tell the parishioners to teach their children that they saw the face of God in the midst of all this — in strangers helping strangers and in people putting their lives on the line and giving them up freely to help others. We preach that we want people to live their faith.
This last week their faith has come alive. It has shown its face.