The Firemen’s Friar

Photo: AP

One month after Mychal Judge’s body was pulled from the shattered lobby of 1 World Trade Center, and three weeks after his televised funeral, some of the friar’s friends decided to hold a smaller memorial evening of Celtic music and storytelling. Priests, nuns, lawyers, cops, firefighters, homeless people, rock-and-rollers, recovering alcoholics, local politicians, and middle-aged couples from the suburbs all streamed into the Good Shepherd Chapel on Ninth Avenue. Pete Hamill read one of his columns from the Daily News, the Irish band Morning Star played jigs and reels, and Malachy McCourt – actor, author, and irrepressible raconteur – stationed himself by the altar, briskly moving things along as emcee. The crowd was so motley, so colorful, it looked like the setup to a joke. (A priest, a lawyer, and an Irishman walk into a bar … )

Most of the mourners had no idea that Judge whirled through the city in so many different orbits, even though he had an extraordinarily high profile as one of five chaplains of the New York City Fire Department. Most also had no idea why they were commemorating a Catholic priest in an Episcopal church, until one of the event’s organizers explained that this was where Judge used to go for AA meetings – the other cornerstone of his spiritual life, besides the church – and therefore had a very special significance to him.

“Only Father Mychal could get a room like this together,” said Joe Hartnett, an electrician and father of five from New Jersey, when he took his turn at the altar to speak. Judge had been a pastor at Hartnett’s parish in East Rutherford when he was a teenager. “I mean, I see firemen, policemen, recovering alcoholics, and people who are – uh, here’s a word I don’t use very often – gay.”

And yet this was precisely who Mychal Judge was: a devout, gay, recovering-alcoholic Catholic priest, a fabled New York figure who had a knack for telling great stories and would burst into old Irish standards at the drop of a hat. (His rendition of “Frankie and Johnny” was a legendary crowd-pleaser; by verse three, he’d have his handkerchief out, pretending to weep.) Judge had a Clintonian talent for making people feel as though they were the only ones in the room and a bartender’s gift for bringing strangers together. Like this crowd.

“I didn’t know anything about his other side,” Hartnett said later, after the service. “I just knew what a great guy he was and how he always gave people the time of day. He was everybody’s priest.”

Perhaps the first wisp of real poetry to emerge from the devastation of the World Trade Center was the tale of Mychal Judge’s death. Within hours of the collapse, a story began circulating that he’d been hit by falling debris when he took his helmet off to give last rites to a firefighter, a man who himself had been crushed by someone who’d jumped from Tower One.

Seven weeks later, it seems that the story is at least partly myth, though perhaps a myth necessary to the demands of the day. For one thing, Judge’s body was found in the lobby of Tower One, not on the sidewalk outside. For another, one of the firefighters who carried Judge out of the building, Christian Waugh, says he saw the chaplain standing upright by the emergency command post just seconds before they and scores of others got caught in a monsoon of rubble. “I’m assuming he gave last rites to the guy in Company 216 and then ran into the lobby,” says Waugh. “Because I was with him in that lobby. He was standing right there, a few feet away from me.”

But it’s understandable how the myth bloomed. Those who knew Judge – and he knew hundreds, if not thousands, of people – wanted him to die gorgeously and aptly, in a way that expressed the depth of his faith. It was how they imagined him. Such a death suited a legend.

As it happens, the unembellished story of Mychal Judge’s death is just as moving – and an even more telling tribute to the chaplain, as well as to the men he served.

“There’s a very old postcard of a giant Jesus looking in the window of the Empire State Building in those long, long robes,” says McCourt, in a brogue as thick as potatoes. “And that was Mike Judge in New York. He was everywhere. Over the city. And ooohhh, how good it was to know he was there.”

Judge was gregarious, mischievous, a luminous presence; he thrived on movement and kept a preposterous schedule, as if he’d found a wormhole beneath the friary on West 31st Street that allowed him to be in six places at once. On any given evening, he might be baptizing a fireman’s child, ministering to an aids patient, or listening to Black 47, a Celtic rock band that had a regular gig at Connolly’s on West 47th Street. Judge got 30 to 40 messages a day on his answering machine. Every six months, he’d wear another machine out.

“He was the busiest person alive,” says Joe Falco, a firefighter with Engine 1-Ladder 24, the company across the street from Judge’s home. “He’d come back at all hours of the morning, blowing his siren so we could park his car. No one knew how he did it. No one understood how he maintained his energy.”

The firemen loved him. He had an encyclopedic memory for their family members’ names, birthdays, and passions; he frequently gave them whimsical presents. Once, after visiting President Clinton in Washington, he handed out cocktail napkins emblazoned with the presidential seal. He’d managed to stuff dozens of them into his habit before leaving the White House.

“I would break his chops constantly,” says Falco. “I wouldn’t treat him like a priest. I’d treat him like any other guy. It wasn’t a priest-parishioner relationship. It was … you know, man to man. He’d help guys out with their marital problems. With every problem, big or small. You could go to him.”

Obviously, Mychal Judge was not what one might call a conventional priest. But he was, arguably, a typical New York Franciscan – earthy, streetwise, thoroughly engaged with the characters and chaos of the city. If times required it, Judge would hold Mass in the most unlikely places, including firehouses and Pennsylvania Station. This drove certain literalists in the clergy crazy, but no matter – Judge pressed on. (To one of his antagonists, a certain monsignor in the chancellery who frequently phoned to admonish him, Judge once said: “If I’ve ever done anything to embarrass or hurt the church I love so much, you can burn me at the stake in front of St. Patrick’s.”)

The other pillar of Judge’s spiritual philosophy was Alcoholics Anonymous. Once, at the White House, he told Bill Clinton that he believed the founders of AA had done more for humanity than Mother Teresa. “He was a great comfort to those with troubles with the drink,” says McCourt, who usually saw Judge twice a month at AA. “He’d always say, ‘You’re not a bad person – you have a disease that makes you think you’re a bad person, and it’s going to fuck you up.’ ” McCourt pauses a moment. “He had no compunction about language. Not with me, anyway.”

Back in the early eighties, Judge was one of the first members of the clergy to minister to young gay men with aids, doing their funeral Masses and consoling their partners and family members. He opened the doors of St. Francis of Assisi Church when Dignity, a gay Catholic organization, needed a home for its aids ministry, and he later ran an aids program at St. Francis. Last year, he marched in the first gay-inclusive St. Patrick’s Day parade, which his friend Brendan Fay, a gay activist, organized in Queens.

Cardinal O’Connor wasn’t exactly a fan. “I heard that if Mike got any money from the right wing,” says McCourt, “he’d give it to the gay organizations. I don’t know if that’s true, but that’s his humor, for sure.”

Perhaps the most unusual thing about Judge was how simultaneously New York and un-New York he seemed. Judge’s roots in this city ran deep – he was born here and raised here – and he knew everyone, from the homeless to the mayor. But he lived on an entirely different plane of priorities from that inhabited by most New Yorkers. He was nonacquisitive, unselfish, and uncomplaining. “Once in a while,” his friend Michael Duffy, a friar from Philadelphia, said in his homily for Judge, “he would say to me, ‘Michael Duffy’ – he always called me by my full name – ‘Michael Duffy, you know what I need?’ And I would get excited because it was hard to buy him a present or anything. I said, ‘No, what?’

“‘You know what I really need?’

“‘No, what, Mike?’

“‘Absolutely nothing. I don’t need a thing in the world. I am the happiest man on the face of the earth.’”

Grimmest task: Rescuers carry Mychal Judge's body from ower One, Tuesday, September 11.Photo: Reuters

Bill Cosgrove, a lieutenant in the Manhattan Traffic Task Force, was in a car on West Broadway when he heard on his radio about the first plane hitting the World Trade Center. He raced to Tower One to help guide rescuers in and out of the area. Later, inside the building, he found a group of firemen, including Christian Waugh, clustered around a granite desk at the tower’s emergency command post. “I was just about to tell them which way to drive,” says Cosgrove. “That’s when the whole building shook. The lights went out. And there was this giant vacuum sound.” Waugh dropped to the ground. Others, including Cosgrove, ducked into the nearby stairwell. “We thought it was our building that was collapsing,” says Cosgrove. “It wasn’t.” He’s now pretty sure it was Tower Two. “The pressure was sucking the windows out of Tower One.”

The men waited in total darkness. Abruptly, they were enveloped in plumes of smoke, fireproofing, and pulverized cement. “You couldn’t breathe,” says Cosgrove. “You couldn’t see. It was totally dark. Someone shouted, ‘Everybody hold hands!’ “

Gasping, their eyes stinging, the men reached out for one another and started a slow, awkward march out of the stairwell and back through the lobby. They had proceeded no more than twenty paces when it happened. Cosgrove tripped over something.

A body.

Everyone stopped. One of the firefighters aimed his flashlight low across the ground. A halo of light framed a man’s face. Everyone saw it. “Oh, my God,” they began to shout. “It’s Father Mike.”

He wasn’t buried under much rubble; his body, even his face, was still perfectly intact. They took his pulse. Nothing. “I took an arm,” says Cosgrove. “Someone else took an arm. Two other guys took his ankles.” Waugh grabbed him by the waist, and together the men carried him out of the building. They found a bunch of broken chairs on an outdoor plaza and nestled Judge in one of them, so that they could carry him down a staircase to the street. That was the moment a Reuters photographer, Shannon Stapleton, snapped the picture that Christopher Keenan, one of Judge’s closest friends at the friary, now calls “a modern Pietà.”

“He was very in touch with human vulnerability. Good ministers have an outsiderness to them. And he did, more so than anybody else.”

Judge was born in Brooklyn in 1933, two days before his twin sister, Dympna. His parents were Irish immigrants from County Leitrim; he lost his father, a grocery-store owner on Dean Street, at 6. Judge was a charming, plucky kid, the type who reveled in the city, wandering everywhere and setting up a shoeshine stand in front of the Flatiron Building just to make a few extra bucks.

For as long as Dympna can remember, Judge wanted to be a priest. Faith came naturally, effortlessly to him; he was an altar boy in elementary school and joined the Franciscan friars at just 15. He took vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience in 1955, was ordained in 1961, and spent the next 25 years hopscotching between parishes in New Jersey. He settled in New York in the summer of 1986, at the friary of St. Francis of Assisi Church.

He became the Fire Department chaplain in 1992, after his predecessor, another friar at Assisi, died of cancer. “Priests and firemen both enter people’s lives at a point of crisis,” muses Duffy. “And they have similar outlooks on life – it’s the need to help, to rescue. So you have Mike Judge wanting to do that in a spiritual way, and them wanting to do it in a physical way. It was a natural match.”

At the friary, Judge’s room was immaculate and spare. Every morning, he’d wake up at around 6:30 and give thanks for his sobriety. At morning office, he sat in the first row, always on the right, and prayed aloud for the city’s workers: its bus drivers and subway workers, its councilmen and mayor. He liked to preach from the first pew as well.

“This was very significant,” says Brian Carroll, a friend and fellow friar. “Because when you step out of the sanctuary, you’re down with the people, eyeball to eyeball with them. That was the New Yorker in him. As he often said, ‘It can get messy, it can get crazy, but it can be an awful lot of fun.’ “

Younger friars often looked to Judge as their role model. He was heartily spiritual, never ashamed to introduce God into ordinary conversation. He compulsively blessed people – the pregnant, the homeless, the random traveler on the bus. “While the rest of us were running around organizing altar boys and choirs and liturgies and decorations,” Duffy told the mourners in his homily, “he was in his office listening. His heart was open.” (But occasionally not his eyes: Duffy later confessed that once, at their New Jersey parish, Judge was so exhausted he fell asleep while a parishioner was unloading his troubles; he apologized and asked him to please return the following night.)

He walked almost everywhere, briskly. There were days he’d start at the friary and go all the way to Coney Island via the Brooklyn Bridge, a dignified figure in leather sandals and a friar’s habit. He never left his room without a wad of $1 bills to distribute to the homeless.

Judge loved being at the center of things, loved being in the media glare. His colleagues often teased him about it – that and his vanity about his thick gray hair, which he was forever combing. As soon as TWA flight 800 crashed into the Atlantic, for example, Judge was racing off to Long Island, tending to the victims’ families, leading them in prayer. He also befriended Steven McDonald, the cop who was rendered a quadriplegic after he was shot by a teenager in Central Park in 1986.

The friendships he made with these people were lasting and deep. Judge stayed in touch with many of them until the day he died, writing Mother’s Day cards to women who’d lost their children and birthday cards to children who’d lost their mothers. He and McDonald took three trips to Ireland together – both were very committed to the Catholic cause – and two to Lourdes.

“He rarely talked about himself,” says McCourt. “He would essentially get you talking about your problem, and the next thing you know, you were talking about your solution – he’d be quietly guiding you toward it. Almost a spiritual therapist, in a sense.”

Though Judge famously triple- and quadruple-booked his afternoons, his first priority was always the Fire Department, which kept him in the loop by beeper and radio. If there was a fire of three alarms or more – beep, beep, beep – off he’d go, in a large sedan the men kept for him at Engine 1-Ladder 24.

“Most of his life,” says Christopher Keenan, “he lived with a great deal of stress about what he couldn’t respond to – the times he had to say no.” Two months before he died, Judge had changed the message on his answering machine. “This is Mychal Judge,” he said. “It’s so good to get your call. But if you’re calling about a wedding or a baptism or funeral, I am so sorry, but I will not be able to do it, because my primary commitment is to the Fire Department.”

By nine or ten at night, he would return to his spartan room and spend the next three or four hours on the phone, returning calls, touching base, making sure that the batty shut-in in New Jersey was surviving or that the homeless person he’d found housing for had figured out how to hook up her telephone. He’d write in his journal. And he’d write letters – Carroll calls them his “midnight notes” – to the friends he’d seen that day or the people he was most concerned about. (He made a special point of keeping the letters coming to David Dinkins, especially when the former mayor was going through a rough spell.)

Some nights, he’d conclude with a 1 a.m. phone call to the men at Engine 1-Ladder 24. As soon as a firefighter picked up, Judge would wander over to his window, facing south over 31st Street, and wave.

As the first tower continued to burn, Waugh, Cosgrove, and the others carried Judge over to the corner of Church and Vesey and laid him out on the sidewalk. An EMT pronounced him dead. Cosgrove, pulsing with adrenaline, began to shout at the top of his lungs. “Somebody get this man a priest! This man is a priest!” The firemen ran back to the scene.

At that very moment, José Alfonso Rodriguez, a 28-year-old third-year cop on the downtown beat, was rounding the corner.

“I know where there’s a church,” he told Cosgrove.

So off he went – up to Church and Barclay Streets, and then into the 163-year-old St. Peter’s. A woman inside was tearing up sheets, handing them to people who needed something to cover their mouths. “I need a priest to give someone last rites,” he panted.

“They’re all out,” she said. “Are you Catholic?”


“You’re allowed to give someone last rites.”

Cosgrove had laid Judge’s black fireman’s jacket neatly over his head. Rodriguez reappeared and grabbed the lieutenant by the arms. “All the priests are gone,” he shouted. “But the lady told me that if you’re Catholic, you can do this. Are you Catholic?”


“Me too.”

The men looked at each other for a split second. They were both wheezing, covered in ash, and trying desperately to see through the smoke. Tower One was minutes away from collapse.

They knelt down on the sidewalk.

Rodriguez gingerly grasped Judge’s hand. Cosgrove laid his hands on Judge’s head. Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven …

September 15, the day he was buried, would have been the twenty-third anniversary of Judge’s sobriety. When he first told his closest friends he was an alcoholic, many of them were stumped. “When he drank,” says Duffy, who worked with Judge in the early seventies, “Mike didn’t look like he had a problem. I denied it, in fact. I said, ‘Nah, you’re not a problem drinker.’ I think he just decided it wasn’t good for him, and he allied himself with others that way.”

But Judge knew it was more serious. “He said that he didn’t know whether it was genetic or inherited or whether it just was,” says McCourt, “but that it led him into lunacy. There wasn’t too much detail about what he did, other than that he’d find himself in blackouts, or in situations he didn’t want to be in. He’d share only in general terms. But he always had his hand out to newcomers.”

Often, he led AA meetings himself. Once in a while, he’d take a dozen members on a three-day retreat to Long Island to discuss their struggles with recovery.

“You would tell your story,” says Mychal McNicholas, a retired lawyer who attended one of the getaways. (McNicholas changed the spelling of his first name from Michael after Judge died – on his credit cards, business cards, everything.) “You had men who’d been in hell, and they were back now, sober. He would clasp his hands, shake his head, and murmur, ‘Oh, beautiful, just beautiful. Such sobriety … ’ ” McNicholas drifts off. Then, abruptly: “Did he ever hug you?”

No, I tell him. I never met Judge. Why, did he give a powerful hug?

“No,” he says. “Just the opposite. It was so soft and gentle … I haven’t been the same since this happened. That’s what my daughter says.”

“One of the things people missed about Mychal Judge,” says Brendan Fay, the gay activist, “is that there was a core of sadness or vulnerability in him. He was very in touch with human vulnerability. And that sensitized him, it really did. Good ministers have an outsiderness and apartness to them. And he did, more so than anybody else.”

Judge’s outsiderness didn’t just come from his being an alcoholic; it also came from his being gay. “He recognized the tension between the worlds he lived in,” says Fay. “He’d be honored by these members of the far right, and yet at the same time he felt he had to constrain himself. There was a certain sadness about that.”

The city’s community of gay activists and officials knew Judge was gay early on – Tom Duane, the state senator from TriBeCa who tested HIV-positive in 1988, says he always assumed Judge would do his funeral. But many of Judge’s straight friends learned he was gay rather late in their friendship, if at all, and his manner of coming out could be oblique. McNicholas remembers when Judge asked him to sponsor a gay man in AA. “I figured it out after that,” he says.

And Judge seems never to have come out to the men across the street, at Engine 1-Ladder 24. Tom Ryan, president of Fireflag/EMS (Firefighters Lesbian and Gay), says it’s still tough to be an openly gay firefighter. “Because I had made it public that I was gay,” he says, “I kept my distance from Mike Judge. I had to be very respectful of his position in life and realize that he was able to accomplish more in the way he lived.”

But he was out to Thomas Von Essen, the fire commissioner. “I had no problem with it,” Von Essen says. “I actually knew about his homosexuality when I was in the Uniformed Firefighters Association. I kept the secret, but then he told me when I became commissioner five years ago. He and I often laughed about it, because we knew how difficult it would have been for the other firefighters to accept it as easily as I had. I just thought he was a phenomenal, warm, sincere man, and the fact that he was gay just had nothing to do with anything.”

But the fact is, sometimes it did – particularly when he was ministering to Catholics who were struggling with their own sexual orientation.

“Mike taught me how to come out as a young man,” says Brian Carroll, who in addition to being a friar at St. Francis is also a psychotherapist. “And how to see sexuality as an important part of who I am. He took away the shame. For some people, sexuality is a part of their shame. Or homelessness is a part of their shame. Or addiction is a part of their shame. Mychal helped people embrace all the shame parts of themselves and turn them into something good.”

He asks to put down the phone a moment so that he can find something. When he returns, he reads aloud from a letter Judge wrote him from Lourdes.

Almost midnight, September 26, 1994.

The Mass was beautiful. I got a spot to stand right under the feet of Mary so I could keep looking up at her and tell her of all my New York people and their needs, and I knew she heard me. Like all other people in the world, Mary knows that New Yorkers are a very special people, and that we need to be looked over in a very special way. For sure, I march to a different drummer. If ever I had any Episcopal ambitions, I’d better put them in the dustbin. Looking around at all the clerics in the church, they are great men, probably good to the core – but I often think I’m in a different church than them … and that’s okay.

Somehow, Judge’s body got from the sidewalk at Church and Vesey to St. Peter’s. When Christian Waugh went back to look for him, he found Judge lying regally on the altar, his helmet and badge perched in mute tribute on his chest. Tom Ryan found him there, too. “I walked into this church,” he says. “And in a world that was gray and dark, there was color, and laying on the altar was the body of Mychal Judge. In a horrendous moment, it was a beautiful sight.”

The pastor at the church called the cardinal’s office. The cardinal’s office called the friary. An ambulance picked Judge up. He was slipped into a body bag and brought back to Engine 1-Ladder 24.

The firefighters placed their chaplain on a cot in the back of the station. Then they cordoned off the area with a clothesline and some sheets, creating a small, private shrine. The men formed a circle around him, got down on their knees, and started to cry.

Keenan sat with Judge until he was taken to the morgue. His death certificate bears the number 00001 – the first official casualty of the World Trade Center.

On September 10, less than 24 hours before he died, Judge happened to rededicate Von Essen’s old firehouse in the Bronx. The department has the ceremony on videotape. “Good days, bad days,” says Judge, clad in a bright white robe. “But never a boring day on this job. You do what God has called you to do. You show up, you put one foot in front of the other, and you do your job, which is a mystery and a surprise. You have no idea, when you get in that rig, what God is calling you to. But he needs you … so keep going. Keep supporting each other. Be kind to each other. Love each other. Work together. You love the job. We all do. What a blessing that is.”

Since then, many have pondered the meaning of Judge’s death – as well as what he might be doing with himself these days, provided there’s a place to go after this one. At his funeral, Duffy ventured that Judge had to be the first casualty of the World Trade Center because God required his services. There were too many dying firemen for him to bless while still living, he reasoned; Judge had to greet them on the other side, with his arms outstretched.

At the memorial, McCourt told the mourners about his own fantasy. Judge, he says, dies and is momentarily disoriented, because after leading such a simple life, he suddenly finds himself in a place with large marble hallways. A figure approaches.

“Can I help you?”

“Well, I don’t know where I am.”

“What’s your name?”

“Judge. First name Mychal.”

“Really? Some people call me Judge, too.”

“Oh? And what’s your first name?”

“Almighty. What kind of work would you like here, Mychal?”

“I’d like to be someplace where there are fires.”

“We don’t have any fires here. The only one we know about is very far away, and that burns eternally, because all the firefighters are here, and we don’t tell them about it, because otherwise they’d be down there fighting it.”

“Well, could I go there and give some people a hand?”

“No, Mychal. Because if you go there, you have to be a sinner, you see? And you’re a saint.”

“Could I have a temporary pass to go there, then? Could I be an honorary sinner?”

“Yes. But please don’t bring back any conservatives.”

At that point, the crowd, already laughing, started to howl. McCourt paused to let everyone collect himself. “And away he goes,” he finally said. “That’s my fantasy about Mychal. He keeps working. He never stops. He’s trying to get all of us out of hell.”

The Firemen’s Friar