A coincidence put the Register in an unexpectedly strong position to cover an overlooked aspect of one of the saddest and biggest stories in memory.
Three staff members left the paper
in 2001. That meant that, on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, former Register
associate editor Joe Cullen was at Mass just a few blocks away from the
What they found was that, while rescue workers were putting their lives on the line to save New Yorkers, priests were risking their safety to save souls.
After terrorists plowed two
airplanes into the
The Register reported, “Fire Department officials asked the priests to give general absolution and the last rites to firefighters and police entering or in close proximity to the buildings.”
Here are some of the priest heroes whose stories gave readers hope in those difficult days.
Father Peter Philominraj, a priest stationed at
Our Lady of Victory near the World Trade Center, talked to Brian McGuire in
“We usually have the third Mass at 8:20 in the morning. As that Mass was getting over around 8:45, there was a big noise. People said a plane had struck one of the buildings. One person … came running into the church with all the debris on him already. He came running and he told us to pray. A group formed to pray in front of the Blessed Sacrament. There were about 40 of them.
“After the second blast, someone came inside and said there was someone dying just outside the church. I was still inside. He was saying it to our secretary. Three of us went out and anointed the man. …
“As people escaped from the buildings, some of them were making confessions. … They were all hurrying away, but they’d say, “Just give me absolution, Father,” as they hurried to get out of the place.”
As the first building began to
collapse, “people started running toward us, so all of us ran away with
everybody else. We couldn’t see anything for quite some time. We ran for two
blocks. People were falling down, panicking, screaming. The whole time, we were
hearing, ‘Oh my God!’ But we came back to the church while everybody else went
Father Gino Sylva was interviewed in “Love Was Lifting Up the Rubble,” filed Sept. 15, 2001, by Tim Drake.
“When we got there, the rescue workers weren’t finding many whole bodies. Not long after I arrived, I found myself being drawn to the first body bag that I saw. As the body bag was opened and the remains were placed into the plastic bag, I realized that this piece of a person needed to be blessed — there was no one else doing that. I ended up standing there with a wonderful Jewish rabbi, and as each bag was opened we would pray over the parts. … We often wondered what part of a person it was. …
“When I returned to the church, I had a ton of messages from a family at my old parish whose father and husband were missing. When I arrived at their home, all covered in dirt, their 7-year-old daughter, Taylor, whom I had given first Communion, asked, ‘Father Gino, did you dig out my Daddy?’ All I could do was keep hugging her.”
We later interviewed Olympic champion rower and Ground Zero rescue worker Jason Read, who said it was seeing a priest blessing body parts at Ground Zero that sparked his conversion to the Catholic faith.
Father Mychal Judge’s
sacrifice was reported by
New York City Police Detective Steven McDonald said a fellow officer described how “a bunch of the guys were running into the building after the first crash.
Father Mike gave them a blessing, and as they continued in, they looked over their shoulders and saw him running to minister to someone on the ground. He was killed by debris falling out of the building.”
Firefighter Mark Heintz of
Rescue workers “stopped in their
tracks, removed their helmets and let us pass by in silent prayer,” Heintz said. They placed him at the foot of the altar,
removed their helmets and knelt, as the
“As I bowed my head in prayer, the reality of the day started to hit me,” Heintz said. “It’s hard to explain, but I felt an inner peace. I had a sense of invincibility. I didn’t know what the other guys were feeling, but I believed that I would be safe for the rest of the day.”
Many of the friars wear beards, and a few have dark complexions and features that could be mistaken for Middle Eastern. As they returned from ministering at Ground Zero, their appearance made them the targets of anti-Muslim sentiments.
One brother, who was a nurse, was confronted by a man who said, “If I had a gun I would kill you.”
Father Conrad Osterhout, the novice master of the community, said, “We need to pray that we will not make a response that is so hateful, although we have to bring the terrorists to justice.”
Father James Hayes was one of the priests called to the scene by rescue workers on Sept. 11. He sent us his story.
“As I was on my way down the
stairs in the rectory on Tuesday morning to get to my office, I got a call from
a special agent in the FBI that there was a plane that just crashed into the
“An officer of the U.S. Marshal
Service was the driver. As we sped west to Broadway and south down
“It was a very strange feeling heading toward the disaster while many were running from the location.
“The driver pulled over about
three blocks north of the
“As I was walking south to the
Father Hayes was engulfed in a cloud of debris, took cover under a car and couldn’t return until the next day.
“As the police officers and military checked my identification card, a construction worker was heading out of the area. Attired in his hard hat and tattoos, he simply said, ‘Thank you, padre!’ As we shook hands, he passed me a small piece of paper. He went out of the zone as I entered. I unwrapped the small brown piece of paper, opened it, and read:
“‘When death strikes down the innocent and young, for every fragile form from which he lets the panting spirit free, a hundred virtues rise, in the shapes of mercy, charity and love, to walk the world and bless it.’
“In a very reaffirming way, I knew that I should be here at Ground Zero.”
Father Chris Hynes was three blocks away from the towers when the attack started. He spoke with Tim Drake in October, 2001.
“I helped the police and other civilians evacuating the building and directed dazed and injured people to walk north away from the buildings. …
“It was while we were there that
we heard a crack and we knew that the building was coming down. Everyone on
“When we went back on
“I ran into a nearby deli and
grabbed eight to nine waters to pour on his head. I saw that officer at a
memorial service recently. He told me that his eyes were starting to burn and
he thanked me for pouring water over his head. He joked that he thought I was
one of the first
Father George Baker was another priest at Our Lady of Victory, three
blocks southeast of the
“It was while I was there comforting people that I witnessed the second plane go into the second tower,” he said. “Shock waves went through my body and time seemed to go blank. Suddenly, all of the police and fire personnel started screaming, telling everyone to run in an eastward direction.”
Father Baker ran back to his parish. There he found approximately 100 people gathered in the church basement — coughing, wheezing, praying and crying. They would remain until they were given clearance to leave by the National Guard later that day.
The confessionals filled up after that day. “We’ve always been blessed with vast numbers of people coming to the sacrament, but now they are coming with very deep reflection on their lives and examining areas where they have strayed and where they can improve their relationships with God or with others.”
Several times, we reported Pope John Paul II’s words, spoken Sept. 30.
“I appeal to all — individuals, families and communities — to pray the Rosary for peace, if possible daily, so that the world will be preserved from the dreadful scourge of terrorism. The terrible tragedy of last Sept. 11 will be remembered as a dark day in the history of humanity. ... May the Virgin Mary, Queen of Peace, intercede for the whole of humanity, so that hatred and death will never have the last word!”
For stories of the lay heroes and victims of Sept. 11, go to www.ncregister.com.