These comments on Scripture and on events of our time
flow from the prayerful reflection and rich experience
of our Sisters, Associates and colleagues. We are happy
to offer them to you,
and pray that these words will open your heart
to the living Word of God.
ELIZABETH ANN SETON, A SAINT FOR 9/11
Ground Zero, the site of the attack on the World Trade Center, covers sixteen acres, the size of fourteen football fields. Its boundaries Vesey, Church, Liberty and West Streets - mark the area where the Great Fire of 1776 once destroyed the entire southeast part of New York City, including Trinity Episcopal Church. At the time, Elizabeth Ann Bayley was only two years old. Later, as the wife of prominent New York merchant William Magee Seton and mother of five children, Elizabeth Seton spent most of her next thirty-two years in and around this very area, before founding the Sisters of Charity in Emmitsburg, Maryland, in 1809.
There were no Twin Towers – no skyscrapers at all – when Elizabeth walked the streets of lower New York. Trinity Church with its graceful spire was the tallest building. Elizabeth was baptized there; some of her relatives are buried in the churchyard that was covered with ash and debris on September 11, 2001.
The home at 8 State Street on the Battery where the Seton family lived for a time is now Our Lady of the Rosary Catholic Church and a shrine in her honor. After 9/11, pastor Reverend Peter Meehan opened the church's doors to Trinity parishioners until they could once again worship in their own sacred space. On the day of the attack, thousands of people streamed past the church, seeking safety, gasping for air, lungs filled with smoke, bodies covered with dust as if from a volcano. "We gave out paper towels, we washed people's faces, we prayed with them, we helped them to breathe," Father Meehan said.
As a New York matron, Elizabeth Seton attended many an Episcopal service in Saint Paul's Chapel, on Broadway and Fulton Street. As she struggled with her attraction to Catholicism, she wrote of sitting in a side pew at Saint Paul's and turning towards the Blessed Sacrament at nearby Saint Peter's Catholic Church (Barclay and Church Streets). After the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center, emergency workers carried bodies of victims to the ancient churchyard of Saint Paul's, the oldest public building in continuous use in New York City. For months afterward, Saint Paul's, in the shadow of Ground Zero, served as a respite center where rescue workers could find food, rest, counseling, even a massage.
The first officially recorded death on 9/11 was that of Mychal Judge, OFM. Judge had been a chaplain with the New York City Fire Department for almost ten years and, since 1968, a parochial vicar at Saint Francis of Assisi, West 31st Street, Manhattan, where he was noted for his ministry to the homeless and to persons with AIDS. When the call came on 9/11, Judge donned his fire gear and raced to the scene to minister to his comrades. He was standing by the command post in the lobby of Tower One just before it collapsed. Rescue workers trying to make their way through the sudden mountain of rubble found his body, took it to nearby Saint Peter's Church, and laid it by the altar.
Educated by the Sisters of Charity of New York at Saint Paul's School, Brooklyn, Judge was never shy about his devotion to Saint Elizabeth Seton. Probably no one who brought his body to Saint Peter's knew that it was the site of Elizabeth's profession of faith as a Catholic, and her first Communion. The coincidence would have delighted Judge.
Charity Connections Today
Through the efforts of Sister Kathryn Anne Connelly, then superintendent of schools in the archdiocese of Cincinnati, and a Sister of Charity, ninety schools raised almost $90,000 to cover the tuition of students who lost parents or whose parents lost their jobs as a result of 9/11. The money was sent to Sister Dominica Rocchio, SC, of New York, then superintendent of schools in the archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey. Sister Dominica commented that this Charity connection was "an example of how relationships (and Elizabeth Seton was one for relationships) are points of grace... in ways that we can never predict or imagine."
Even in Elizabeth Seton’s day, the city was no stranger to violence and hatred. In the chaotic aftermath of the American Revolution, Elizabeth helped to start a service organization on behalf of needy, mostly immigrant, women and their children. She reached across differences in religion and class, making connections instead of barriers.
Patricia Cooney Devaney (SCNY Associate) was captured by the bittersweet stories of widows expecting babies after the deaths of their husbands on 9/11. Pat asked "Could we, Associates and Sisters,…carry our charism like embers to these women about to give birth while dealing with grief and uncertainty?" Pat, her husband Frank (also an Associate), with the late Sister Mary Gallagher, SC, and members of the congregation's Associate Relationship team formulated the Small Miracles program. They contacted the widows /expectant mothers “to offer congratulations on the birth of your baby and condolences on the loss of your husband.” The program reached out to each woman as “a special person, a new proud mother who has experienced the joy of a new life, a small miracle, in the wake of tremendous loss and pain." To Pat, the babies were "small miracles, proof that life, like the embers and the Charism of Charity, goes on."
Jesuit James Martin wrote (America, Aug. 29-Sept. 5, 2011) that he experienced resurrection as well as horror on 9/11: “For me, it embodied the Christian mystery of the cross: the place of unimaginable tragedy can also be the place of new life, which comes in unexpected ways.”
Now, as in Elizabeth Seton’s day, we are called to respond to tragedy not with fear, not with violence in return for violence, but with heartfelt, practical compassion. As followers of Jesus crucified, we can do nothing less.
Sister Regina Bechtle, SC
(Parts of this reflection are excerpted from Sr. Regina’s 2001 article
in the journal Vincentian Heritage, “In the Face of Adversity:
The Response of the Vincentian and Charity Families to 9/11,”
available online at http://via.library.depaul.edu/vhj/vol21/iss2/4)
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