A Light in New York

NEW YORK — I was at work near Wall Street on Aug. 14 when much of the Northeast was paralyzed by a sudden power outage that threw me, along with as many as 50 million other people, back in a time before electricity.

For me, it was literally a blackout. I was leaving the company bathroom and suddenly had trouble finding the door.

From New Jersey all the way to Toronto, people lost modern conveniences: trains, computers, planes, air conditioners and light bulbs.

Some colleagues and I headed for two of the city's major transportation hubs: the Port Authority Bus Terminal and Pennsylvania Avenue Station. Some of us quickly made plans to stop at two Catholic churches very close to Penn Station, which remained aglow with candlelight amid the darkness.

In the blackout region, 21 power plants shut down, affecting Detroit; Toledo, Ohio; Cleveland; Newark, N.J.; and Ottawa.

I heard the same thing from other major cities: Catholic churches remained accessible.

In Canada, Father Lindsay Harrison of St. Patrick's Basilica in Ottawa was worried when the alarm system wouldn't work. He said renovations in the church forced him to move the church's operations to the dark basement, using flashlights for the readers at Mass and candles in the confessionals.

Detroit was perhaps the hardest hit, with a days-long delay for power to be restored.

Tom Serafin, president of the Apostolate for Holy Relics, had to scuttle plans to bring the relic of the tilma of St. Juan Diego to Blessed Sacrament Cathedral in Detroit on the feast of the Assumption.

The relic has already visited 10 cities and tens of thousands of Catholics have turned out to venerate the relic.

“Only a crisis of this magnitude could have temporarily halted the travel of the tilma relic,” Serafin said. “Our flight was canceled, and the cathedral is without power.”

At first, the cathedral planned to bring the relic anyway — with the power out, the need for a supernatural boost was greater, after all. But Santiago Fernandez, who is coordinating the tilma relic's visit for the Archdiocese of Detroit, said that without power, it would be impossible to carry out the planned services.

But it was New York where the aftermath of the blackout was most dramatic. It felt like Sept. 11 again, at least at first.

It was another mass evacuation out of Lower Manhattan with no subways and few buses. We spilled out into the streets, where below us, rush-hour subway riders were trapped in the tunnels. The streets were filled with idling cars. Pedestrians crowded the bridges.

I didn't know it then, but it would take me 22 hours to get home.

It was 4:11 p.m. when the lights went out in New York. By the time the sun set four hours later, I had walked from my office just one block north of Ground Zero through Greenwich Village, Chelsea and the Garment District, where the atmosphere was one of concern but far from panic.

There were a lot of people out on the streets and just as much cooperation. People shared radios, offered water and congregated together at restaurants.

“People were quick to strike up conversations, and everyone had an attitude of ‘let's make the best of it,’” said Mark Froeba, a colleague.

I wound up sleeping at my sister's house north of the city, far from my home on Long Island. I had to scramble in a series of bus connections, a trek that I shared with six or seven others. An easy camaraderie developed. We spent most of the time laughing — making light of our unusual plight.

Despite the exhaustion, the uncertainty and the inconvenience, there was a magic to the evening.

“I heard many people say the stars could be seen over New York for the first time in memory,” Froeba said.

But it was in the churches that the real significant light could be found.

The two churches at Pennsylvania Avenue Station were open throughout the night, with perhaps 100 people spending the night in each of the churches, St. Francis of Assisi, staffed by Franciscans, and St. John the Baptist, which is manned by another branch of St. Francis’ friars, the Capuchins.

They were dark, but you could make your way around with the help of votive lights and other forms of candlepower. People streamed in and out, making visits to the Blessed Sacrament. Priests and brothers stood at the doors, chatting with numerous visitors and waving people in.

For many, it was their first conversation with a Catholic religious and their first serious conversation about Catholicism.

“It was an opportunity of genuine, if low-key, evangelization,” said Father Bernard Maloney, pastor of St. John's, who spent much of the night at the church's 31st Street entrance with Brother Salvatore Partricola, a deacon.

St. John's was more than a spiritual respite, as the church and its adjoining monastery opened their doors to those in need of the bathroom or a drink of water throughout the night — long after other businesses in the area closed their doors.

“Surprisingly, we saw very few ‘problem people,’” Brother Partricola said.

“It was a great evening,” Father Maloney said in agreement, acknowledging that it was probably because everyone had the same problem and drew solace from their shared lot.

At Sunday Mass on Aug. 17, Father Thomas Moriarity of Our Lady of Victory Church in Floral Park, N.Y., on Long Island, commiserated about the unlikely events of the prior Thursday evening with his parishioners, including many commuters on the Long Island Railroad who slept that night on a sidewalk.

Taking note of the Lord's promise of eternal life to those who eat his body and drink his blood, Father Moriarity invited his listeners to consider a “greater darkness” than the simple loss of electricity.

“Imagine if all of our churches were suddenly closed, Masses were no longer offered, we could not receive Communion,” he said. “That would be the only true loss of light — the light of the world. And this is already the case for those places that cannot be served by a priest, or only irregularly. It helps us to put what happened Thursday in a truer perspective.”

Joe Cullen writes

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