As we crossed the Hudson River on the ferry from Newark, the morning sun danced on the waves and the clear blue sky framed the New York City skyline as it rose impressively before us.

It was the middle of October.

We were five sisters of the Third Order Regular of Penance of the Sorrowful Mother — Sisters Alexandra Marie Burghardt, Anne Marie Gill, Therese Marie Iglesias, Lilla Marie Lottinger and myself. We had just conducted a four-day mission on “Living Life in the Holy Spirit” at Notre Dame of Mount Carmel Parish in Cedar Knolls, N.J.

Shortly after the World Trade Center tragedy we had been given a copy of the now famous picture of the 20-foot steel-beam cross found by a workman in the debris. Our hearts were impassioned with the desire to pray at the site of the cross. Now here we were, watching the smoke rise in the distance between the skyscrapers.

Setting foot on the streets of Lower Manhattan, we walked toward the site of Ground Zero.

Many streets dead-ended on the fenced-in site. Police and military presence was considerable. Wending our way around to the first police barricade, we inquired about passes to enter the site. We were directed to another checkpoint. Several checkpoints and much walking later, we were advised to go to Pier 92, the Command Center that coordinates all Ground Zero operations.

The streets were barricaded outside Piers 92 and 93. IDs were required there and at several successive points of entrance. Pier 93 houses a huge operation providing chaplain services, Red Cross and various social services for surviving families of the tragedy, coordination of volunteer services, and a temporary mayor's office. A brief interaction there led us to continue to Pier 92.

At each required point of surveillance, we wondered if we might not realize our desired goal. We proceeded, trusting in divine Providence to open or close the doors. Accompanied by a police guard, we took the elevator to the main floor of the Command Center in Pier 92. Again, showing identification we repeated our request: “We would like passes to Ground Zero to pray at the cross.”

We were told to wait and a police officer would come out to talk with us. About 45 minutes later Sgt. Valentino Suarez came out to speak with us. “Sisters, there are dozens of crosses down there,” ... and, finally “I'll see what I can do.”

Sgt. Suarez arranged for picture-ID passes, hardhats, goggles and nose masks. Together with a young police officer, Stephen Brown, he drove us to Ground Zero.

One more security post, and there it was: a massive pile of twisted metal and gray ash several stories high. Two skeleton walls, fragments of concrete and steel, 10 or 12 stories high, one for each of the towers, stood leaning amid the rubble.

Smoke was still rising from one large area that still burned in what remained of one of the towers. It was so hot, we were told, that firemen couldn't get near it: Their boots melted.

We observed the holocaust from a raised wood platform constructed for families to view the final resting place of their loved ones. They come hoping for a semblance of closure. A woman near us sobbed, surrounded by her family. We prayed silently.

At a 30-degree angle to our left, about a block away, we could see the cross.

The workman who discovered it said it was standing almost erect in the rubble and he cried for 20 minutes upon finding it. On Oct. 3, workers hoisted it atop a 40-foot high concrete foundation, formerly a pedestrian walkway. Construction workers, firefighters and police officers stood quietly by as Franciscan Father Brian Jordan blessed it with holy water. Rescue workers have made pilgrimages to pray or meditate near the cross.

We were not able to pray at the cross for safety reasons, but our police escorts, Sgt. Suarez and Officer Brown, drove us by it. We stopped at the foot of the cross for a few moments, sobered and grateful at the realization that we were given the privilege to be so near it.

In Father Jordan's words, “Behold the glory of the cross at Ground Zero. It stands as our symbol of hope, our symbol of faith, our symbol of healing.”

We were then driven by the policemen to St. Patrick's Cathedral to attend evening Mass. We were grateful for the kindness shown to us by Sgt. Suarez and Officer Brown. Throughout the day we were often aware of little signs of caring, the courtesy and sensitivity of the people, military, firefighters, and most especially of the New York City Police. At every opportunity we spoke a brief word of encouragement.

“Thanks for a great job!” “We pray for you!” Sr. Alexandra Marie gave away Miraculous Medals with a smile and a gentle, “This is a reminder of God's love for you.”

The last lady we spoke with in the city told us, “New York has changed. Since Sept. 11, people are more courteous, more considerate, more concerned for one another.” We came away believing God has given hope for a renewed reverence for life to the people of New York City and our nation.

R

Grace Anne Wills is a Franciscan Third Order Regular sister in Steubenville, Ohio.