Father Judge, a Hero, Died a Heroís Death

McDonald has been paralyzed since being shot in the line of duty in 1986. Since then, he had a close elationship with Franciscan Father Mychal Judge who died ministering to firefighters on the scene of the World Trade Center attack Sept. 11. Register correspondent John Burger spoke with McDonald three days after Father Judge's death.

How did Father Judge die?

The way he died tells us everything about him.

I went with a mutual friend and his superior to claim his body, and no one could tell us how he died, only the cause of death. I heard on the news yesterday that he died giving someone the last rites.

I got a call from a friend in Canada who had been on the phone with a firefighter. He and 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 shoulder and saw him running to minister to someone on the ground. He was killed by debris falling out of the building.

When did you first meet Father Judge?

A month after I was shot, in August 1986, he was returning from England, where he was studying for a aster's degree in social work.

They were looking for priests to help say Mass in my room at Bellevue Hospital every day. They had a small number of priests, but those men had other obligations.Father Mike has stayed with us all these years.

When his good friend, Father Julian Deeken, Franciscan, said, “Mike, would you come say Mass for Steve McDonald?” he said, “Who is Steve McDonald?”

He said to him, “Where have you been?”

We were a family. He often said to Patti Ann (McDonald, the policeman's wife), “It's the four of us.” There were good days and bad days. We disagreed on some things; we were disappointed with each other at times. But he would always end his phone call by saying, “I love you.”

I'm going to miss that.

I asked him Saturday morning [three days before terrorist attack] to come say Mass Sunday evening. He said, “I have to look at my book.” When he became fire chaplain 10 years ago, he became more and more important to the men and women of the fire department.

He said, “My responsibility is to these people,” and that's how he died. He called back Saturday night and asked if he could come Sunday afternoon. I said I was busy then. Now I wish I had made all the changes necessary so he could come at that time.

Describe him as a person and a priest.

He was shaped by his life. His mother and father were Irish immigrants who had a small grocery store in downtown Brooklyn. His father became ill in 1936 with mastoiditis, when Mike was three. For the next three years he was in terrible pain and discomfort. Mike grew up never knowing him.

He said, “I never had a father growing up, someone I could play catch with or go for a walk with.” Now everybody calls him Father.

He was a very sensitive man, full of love. We'd give him clothes for his birthday or Christmas and spent a lot of those times together. When he came later, we'd say, “Where's your gift?” It turned out he gave it away to a homeless person. When he came for a meal, Patti Ann would have to pack up the leftovers, and he would go to Penn Station to give it to the homeless.

The Prime Minister of Ireland [Bertie Ahern] called the other day asking if the priest who died was the one who traveled with me to Ireland in 1998, 1999 and 2000 [the McDonalds made three trips to Ireland to promote reconciliation]. We got calls from my mother's people over there, and they said there were reports of his death on television.

Friends in Belfast called, saying they did a big story on Ulster television of him as a priest, a living example of being Christ for everyone he came in contact with. He was a warm, sensitive, loving, weak human being like all of us.

But he had many strengths and talents.

He could give you a homily in 10 minutes or less that took others 20 or more. He was a patriotic American. Often, the closing hymn for Mass in our home was God Bless America. If we had Irish visitors in our kitchen, he'd be there, tapping his feet, humming a tune.

He was a recovering alcoholic, and he embraced the AA code of living, going to meetings, telling your story. Wherever we went together — Belfast, Lourdes — he found a meeting. He helped some of my family members get over their drug addictions, and now they're doing very well in their lives. When my cousin Michael died of AIDS, Father Mike was there in his last moments, wiping his brow.

What was your condition, both physical and emotional? In what ways did you require help, and in what ways did he help you?

First and foremost, he was a priest in love with Jesus. He would bring Jesus into every gathering or home he was called to. Where there was Father Mike, Jesus was there. He brought [Christ's] message of love and forgiveness.

People know me from my act of forgiveness [of the man who shot him]. John Cardinal O'Connor and Father Mike were the two that helped me most understand the message of forgiveness. When I was called to forgive, it was their message and homilies that helped me understand, to love my fellow human being. He would pray with me. He spent many hours next to my bed.

Last night at his wake, his closest friend, Father Paddy Fitzgerald, said there were four prayers that meant the most to him — The Lord's Prayer, the Hail Mary, the Glory Be and the Prayer of St. Francis.

When I was struggling in my marriage or in my life, trying to choose between following Christ or sinning against God, Father Mike, either in my home or in my van, was doing what a priest did best, to bring Christ into my life.

Patti Ann said yesterday, “I'm scared to be in a world without Father Mike.”

At a human level, I'm very concerned myself. It's very difficult to think of going on without him, but he's left us with a strong faith that was not as strong before. It's been strengthened by our relationship.

Can we say he was your friend and spiritual director?

He was. We used to talk almost every night. Lately he was going so much — 19 hours a day he was out with his firefighters — but we would always talk between 11 and 1 at night and share what happened that day. He was in Prague for a priest's ordination in June. He went into the cathedral where the statue of the Infant is and called me when he came out.

A lot of priests said [at the wake], “Father Mike was my best friend.” And there were funny stories about how he complained about a cook at St. Francis and said he couldn't get a good meal. He and my son Conor were very close. He was like a father figure to him. Whether we were on the streets of Belfast or New York, they loved to muck it up, poke each other in the ribs and put each other in a headlock. He had a great sense of humor.

You became a high profile figure in New York. Did he help you as a way of attaining publicity for himself?

Father Mike couldn't care less. If somebody was pushing to the front, Father Mike would drop back. That's not the way he thought of our life together.

We went to Lourdes twice. He helped me get into the chair and went into the bath with me and lowered me into the water. He wanted to serve God and be a living example of Christ Jesus to others, not being with me to receive attention. No way, that's not Father Mike.

When my cousin died, it was 3:30 in the morning, and there were no cameras there. Last night there were members of the AIDS ministry he had run before becoming fire chaplain. There were no cameras there then.

His greatest enjoyment was the Eucharist, was Christ; then came us. That's what kept him going. Conor was saying, “Why did this happen? How did this happen?” He and I have watched Saving Private Ryan a couple of times. On the beaches of Omaha, there was a quick scene of a Catholic priest giving the last rites. I said, “Conor, sure enough, that's how he died.”

What motivated Father Mychal to do things like being on the scene of the World Trade Center disaster?

When TWA800 crashed, he said, “I've gotta go.” He knows danger full well. Many times, he's responded to fires where firefighters died. He was the most beloved and wanted haplain on the department. Several years ago, on his 65th birthday, someone said that when he was a little boy, he wanted to be firefighter.

Are you aware of others he's helped?

At 4:30 this morning, my phone rang, and it was a retired but injured member of the Royal Ulster Constabulary from Belfast, Hazel McCready.

She had been paralyzed by a terrorist attack back in the '70s or '80s. She'd helped us the times we were in Northern Ireland with transportation with her contacts in the Constabulary. But she wasn't buying in to this “Christ” message. She was moved over the last several years to embrace Christ's message of forgiveness because of her meeting with Father Mike.

But he could keep religion light. His mother had a saying, “Too much religion is no good for anybody.” Religion is important, but he could make you laugh in the most difficult situations. He realized there was a time to laugh and a time to pray.

[If he survived], he'd be there 20 hours a day until the last piece of emergency equipment was pulled out, making 100,000 new friends. He had limitless love, unconditional love. There's very little of that sometimes. He'd be there praying with people, pulling them through the darkest moments. But he's there with them anyway. I'm sure God is using Father Mike to help them along and give them an extra boost of energy.

John Burger writes from New York.

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