Saturday, September 10, 2011

10 years later: Mychal Judge, gay saint of 9/11

“Father Mychal Judge” by Brother Robert Lentz,

Ten years ago Father Mychal Judge, chaplain to New York firefighters and unofficial “gay saint,” died helping others in the Sept. 11 attack on the World Trade Center.

To honor the tenth anniversary of 9/11, we present an excerpt from a new spirituality book, “Mychal's Prayer: Praying with Father Mychal Judge” by Salvatore Sapienza, a former monk who worked with Father Mychal to form St. Francis AIDS Ministry in New York City. Sapienza is also the author of Seventy Times Seven: A Novel, a novel about a young Catholic brother torn between his sexuality and his spirituality as an out and proud gay man.

His book “Mychal’s Prayer” mixes prayers with stories from the chaplain’s life. It begins with Father Mychal’s own words, a text that has come to be known simply as “Mychal’s Prayer”:

Lord, take me where You want me to go;
Let me meet who You want me to meet;
Tell me what You want me to say; and
Keep me out of your way.

An excerpt from “Mychal’s Prayer”

Wherever he was, Father Mychal Judge was usually the center of attention. Part of the reason for this was purely physical. Mychal was tall and handsome and was almost always wearing his Franciscan habit. Even in a city like New York, where anything goes, the sight of a man in a monk’s robe and sandals riding the subway was unusual and garnered him stares.

At the time I had entered religious life, the custom of wearing a religious habit had gone by the wayside. Though some nuns, brothers and priests were still walking the streets in their religious garb, most were now wearing secular clothing for most of the day.

I asked Mychal once why he still wore the brown monk’s robes. “People see a policeman in uniform and know to go to him for help, right?” he said. “I want people to see me on the street and know they can come to me for spiritual help.”

In that regard, I think Mychal liked being seen. Friars who lived and worked with him have commented that he loved to have his picture taken, especially when he first donned his fire chaplain’s uniform for a professional photographer. He loved the camera, and the camera loved him.

Mychal’s work often brought him the spotlight, as well. Befriending a celebrated police officer paralyzed in the line of duty, comforting relatives of those killed in a major airline disaster, or marching openly with the first gay group allowed in the Saint Patrick’s Day parade, Mychal was often front and center.

Not everyone would be comfortable in this position, and maybe that’s why Mychal gravitated towards such high profile situations. While others might shy away from newsworthy media events, for Mychal this was one way he could use his gifts to be the public face of God.

The last line of Mychal’s prayer (“and keep me out of your way”) was most likely his reminder to self to keep his ego in check, to make sure that the attention he was receiving was not for his benefit, but for the bigger picture.

When religious figures such as Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa or the Dali Lama have attended public events, their presence has often helped shine the spotlight on the plight of those who are often ignored by the media and the society at large. I think Mychal’s motivations were in the same vein.

It should come as no surprise then that God called Mychal to the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, for the photograph of Mychal’s body being carried from the site remains, for many of us, the most ingrained image in our memories of that day.

Ten years later, the names and faces of the terrorists have faded away for many of us, but Mychal’s image remains. His selfless act that day continues to shine the light of God’s presence in the face of despair.

Reflection on the Gay Saint of 9/11

A gay priest is considered a saint by many since his heroic death in the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in 2001.

Father Mychal Judge (1933-2001), chaplain to New York City firefighters, was killed while praying and administering sacraments at the World Trade Center. He was the first recorded victim of 9/11. Many people consider him a saint.

He responded quickly when extremists flew hijacked planes into the twin towers. He rushed with firefighters into the north tower right after the first plane hit. Refusing to be evacuated, he prayed and administered sacraments as debris crashed outside. He saw dozens of bodies hit the plaza outside as people jumped to their deaths. His final prayer, repeated over and over, was “Jesus, please end this right now! God, please end this!”

While he was praying, Father Mychal was struck and killed in a storm of flying steel and concrete that exploded when the south tower collapsed. He was the first officially recorded fatality of the 9/11 attack. Father Mychal was designated as Victim 0001 because his was the first body recovered at the scene. More than 2,500 people from many nationalities and walks of life were killed. Thousands more escaped the buildings safely.

After Father Mychal’s death, some of his friends revealed that he considered himself a gay man. He had a homosexual orientation, but by all accounts he remained faithful to his vow of celibacy as a Roman Catholic priest of the Franciscan order.

The charismatic, elderly priest was a long-term member of Dignity, the oldest and largest national lay movement of LGBT Catholics and their allies. Father Mychal voiced disagreement with the Vatican’s condemnation of homosexuality, and found ways to welcome Dignity’s AIDS ministry despite a ban by church leaders. He defied a church boycott of the first gay-inclusive St. Patrick’s Day parade in Queens, showing up in his habit and granting news media interviews.

Many people, both inside and outside the LGBT community, call Father Mychal a saint. He has not been canonized yet by his own Roman Catholic Church, but some feel that he has already become a saint by popular acclamation, and the Orthodox-Catholic Church of America did declare officially declare him a saint.

The icon at the top of this post was painted by Brother Robert Lentz, is a Franciscan friar known for his innovative and LGBT-positive icons. He is stationed at Holy Name College in Silver Spring, Maryland.

An icon of Father Mychal was also done by Father William Hart McNichols. He shows Father Mychal with St. Francis of Assisi as the World Trade Center burns behind them. In the text accompanying the icon, Father McNichols describes Father Mychal as a Passion Bearer who “takes on the on-coming violence rather than returning it… choosing solidarity with the unprotected.”

“Holy Passion Bearer Mychal Judge and St. Francis of Assisi”
By Father William Hart McNichols

McNichols is a Roman Catholic priest based in New Mexico. He has a deep connection to New York City because he worked at an AIDS hospice there in the 1980s. Both McNichols and Lentz have faced controversy for painting gay-positive icons. They are two of the 11 artists whose life and work are featured in “Art That Dares: Gay Jesus, Woman Christ, and More ” by Kittredge Cherry.

Father Mychal’s life, including his gay orientation and his support for LGBT rights, is chronicled in the film documentary Saint of 9/11 - The True Story of Father Mychal Judge.

Another artist’s portrait of Father Mychal is based on Shannon Stapleton’s famous photo of his body being carried from the World Trade Center. “Faces of Courage,” original oil painting by Marion McGrath, also incorporates a cross and the collapsed world Trade Center. It can be seen at this link:
9/11 Memorial Museum

On the tenth anniversary of the World Trade Center tragedy, may these images and stories inspire people with Father Mychal’s legacy of love and service.

Related links:
Mark Bingham: Gay hero of 9/11 died fighting hijackers

Saint Mychal Judge Blog (very complete and up-to-date!)

Mychal Judge is the first recorded victim of 9/11 -- and also the first saint in the GLBT Saints series by Kittredge Cherry at the Jesus in Love Blog. The series began on Sept. 11, 2009, and has grown to include more than 40 saints, martyrs, mystics, heroes, holy people, deities and religious figures of special interest to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) and queer people and our allies. They are covered on appropriate dates throughout the year.

The Mychal Judge icon is available on cards, plaques, T-shirts, mugs, candles, mugs, and more at


Bill Wilson said...

On Sunday. Sept.11,2011 the rainbow flag that flies above Harvey Milk Plaza in the Castro neighborhood of San Francisco will fly at half staff in honor of Father Judge, Mark Bingham and the others who died on 9/11/01. At 1 pm a statement from Mark's mother will be read and their will be an open mic for people to share their feelings. I am involved in this tribute because that kid that Harvey Milk talked about still needs the hope that comes from knowing that there were gay people who acted with bravery and courage on 9/11

Kittredge Cherry said...

It’s moving to hear about the rainbow flag flying at half mast today in the Castro for 9/11. Good for you, Bill, for being involved. It’s great to hear from you again, and thanks again for sharing this photo of John McNeill. I just got to see and hear him again last night by watching the documentary “Saint of 9/11” about Mychal Judge. It’s moving to hear Father Mychal’s reflections on the crash of another plane flight where he ministered on the scene, and how he massaged the feet of people hospitalized with AIDS in the 1980s when others treated them as lepers. He was saintly way before 9/11.

Kittredge Cherry said...

Thanks, Gayte Keeper, and welcome to the Jesus in Love Blog!

Another artist’s portrait of Father Mychal is based on Shannon Stapleton’s famous photo of his body being carried from the World Trade Center. “Faces of Courage,” original oil painting by Marion McGrath, also incorporates a cross and the collapsed world Trade Center. It can be seen at this link:
9/11 Memorial Museum

Thanks to Valerie for alerting me to this painting, and news reports of Father Mychal in New Zealand. I also updated the main post with a link to the painting.

Unknown said...

I wish I had met Father Mychal in life, but I know him now. As a child, of course, I was introduced to the concept of a guardian angel, which I never really embraced. Now, in my older years, I realize the necessity of one and I've chosen Father Mychal to be that guardian.

Kittredge Cherry said...

I often feel that our guardian angels and patron saints choose us, rather than us choosing them. I’m glad to hear that Father Mychal is protecting you, Sharon.