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A Month Later, Faith, Family and Outreach Help the Grieving

BY John Burger

October 21-27, 2001 Issue | Posted 10/21/01 at 1:00 AM

 

NEW YORK — Msgr. Joseph Murphy couldn't spend much time on the phone. “I'm trying to put one foot in front of the other,” said the pastor of St. Clare's parish on Staten Island, N.Y. “We're right in the midst of burying our dead.”

He later qualified the word “bury.” Most of the bodies of the more than 25 parishioners who perished in the World Trade Center tragedy have not been recovered. The number might approach 30 as more deaths are confirmed, which would exceed the number at St. Mary's parish in Middletown, N.J., previously reported to have the highest number of victims in one parish.

One month after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., many at St. Clare's, as elsewhere, are still trying to make sense of their loss and cope with grief. Those most deeply affected — the spouses, siblings, parents and children of those lost — are digging deep into their faith and hope to get them through a trying time.

“It's a deep, deep grief process, and it's affected nearly everyone,” Msgr. Murphy said, noting that many people on Staten Island work in lower Manhattan, where the World Trade Center stood.

The parish is still arranging funerals and memorial Masses for the deceased, which included 10 members of the New York City Fire Department. An overwhelming number of the funerals for the hundreds of firemen who perished took place in Catholic churches around the city and its suburbs.

“It's going to be a long, extended grief process for us,” said the pastor, who includes himself among the grieving — he for his flock. “It comes down to this: I have no intellectual answer for it. I can be present to the people and let them know I care.”

To the west, in Summit, N.J., Jamie Connor and her two young sons were attending a memorial Mass for her husband, James, who perished in the World Trade Center collapse. Connor was a partner of Sandler O'Neill & Partners on the 104th floor of the south tower. “He was a five-handicap golfer,” boasted Connor's uncle, Father Robert Connor, a priest of Opus Dei in New York. And golf was the reason the 38-year-old investment banker got together with his parents, James H. and Ruth Ann Connor, in August, the last time they saw each other.

“Our faith will get us through,” Mrs. Connor said. “That's what we believe as Catholics. It's difficult to accept, but we're trying.”

Pulling Together

Family ties have also played an important part in the recovery process for Maureen Sheehan, whose brother, Edward Fergus, was a partner and bond broker with the financial services firm Cantor Fitzgerald. At 7:30 the morning of the attack, as always, Fergus was at his desk on the 105th floor of the north tower of the World Trade Center. The 40-year-old alumnus of St. Michael's College in Vermont had left his home in Wilton, Conn., before 6 a.m.

Fergus had worked at the World Trade Center when it was bombed in 1993. He had also been there for his sister, when her husband died suddenly in 1999.

“Like others, I'm trying to be of use to other family members, to stay close,” said Sheehan, who has been heavily involved in helping her sister-in-law, Linda Fergus, particularly in doing the necessary paperwork for her brother's death certificate, insurance and other legal matters. “This kind of thing makes you see how fragile life is and how important people are in your life. In everyday life, family life takes a back seat.” But, she added, “family and faith are the most important parts of our lives.”

It's comforting, Sheehan said, to know that members of her family are always there for one another. It was comforting, too, to witness the amount of support the family received from friends, co-workers and neighbors, she said. Some 750 people attended a memorial Mass in Connecticut for her brother, including staff members of Catholic Charities in the Archdiocese of New York, where she coordinates services to the homeless and hungry, and priests from St. Michael's. Neighbors of her sister-in-law offered to cook meals for her and her two children indefinitely, while others offered to fix things around the house, do the gardening and chop firewood, things Fergus himself would do.

Sacrificing for Others

Even some who did not lose family members felt deeply affected by the tragedy and wanted to reach out to the grieving. In peaceful Garrison, N.Y., about 50 miles up the Hudson River, the men staying at St. Christopher's Inn, a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center run by the Franciscan Friars of Atonement, wanted to do their part to help contribute to the relief effort. While it was not feasible to head down to ground zero to help recover bodies and possibly save a few lives, one of the brothers at Graymoor, as the Atonement center is called, suggested they raise money for victims.

And so by cutting back on one meal a week, 130 men with serious problems of their own — and little money, in most cases — decided to help families devastated by the attack.

“We'd like to go there and help, but we can't,” James Bollart, 28, of Staten Island told a reporter. Bollart arrived at St. Christopher's on Aug. 28 after nearly 14 years of alcohol and drug abuse. His brother-in-law worked in the World Trade Center, but was on vacation on Sept. 11.

The directors of St. Chris-topher's Inn expect to have $1,000 to send to a relief fund after five weeks of soup-only Wednesdays.

St. Christopher's Inn director, Atonement Father Bernie Palka, made the fundraising proposal to the men in the dining room on the residence at lunchtime shortly after the attack. It was greeted by thunderous applause.

Atonement Brother Thomas Banaki, who works with the recovering addicts, says the act of sacrifice is all part of the recovery process for the men. “When the men come here they have usually reached a very low bottom and all other doors are closed to them,” he said. “There is nowhere else to turn. They have many problems and serious issues to work on, but in all this, they must seek to help others. We must teach them that no matter what, there is always some way to reach out to others. Life is not all about taking; there needs to be some giving.”

And, back in the city, amid talk of erecting a memorial to the terror victims, Father George Rutler, the new pastor of Our Savior parish in Manhattan, decided that for his parish the first step would be to put the church's tabernacle on the high altar. It had been on a side altar in the Park Avenue church. Father Rutler, who rushed to Ground Zero on the morning of Sept. 11 to administer the sacraments to victims, said the move would symbolize what a grieving society needs most: Christ at the center.

Staff writer John Burger joins the Register after eight years at Catholic New York newspaper. Kathryn Jean Lopez contributed to this article.