My Friend, The Fire Chaplain

I met Mychal Judge in the spring of 1985 when my boyfriend, Javier, and I decided to get married. As a lapsed Catholic, estranged from the Church for over a decade, I was tormented with guilt and worry, yet I wanted to have a church wedding without having to account for prior errant ways—our daughter, for example—or making any commitments to the Church. A resident of Chelsea, I had stopped in at St. Francis of Assisi on West Thirty-first Street a few times, and liked the laid-back style of the Franciscan friars. They offered good music at Mass. They fed the hungry and seemed to be kind to those in need. I felt like I fit right in.

One day, after having summoned all my courage, I walked into the church office.

“I need to talk to your nicest priest,” I said to the receptionist. I spoke in a low voice, feeling embarrassed and foolish. Why would any priest be willing to perform a wedding on my terms? The woman looked at me with a blank expression for a moment; then smiled brightly and told me to have a seat as she picked up the phone. Minutes later, a tall and handsome white-haired man wearing a brown friar’s robe and sandals stepped into the room. As he shook my hand my discomfort vanished.

I was instantly at ease with Father Mychal. He took me into a conference room, beckoned me to have a seat on the sofa, and looked at me intently while I tried to articulate why I was there. He seemed to understand what I wanted far better than I did myself. By the end of our meeting he had agreed to marry us, and wanted to meet Javier and our 18-month old daughter, Desiree.

I couldn’t believe my good fortune at having found Father Mychal. I was living a life of confusion and chaos, which was why I was reluctant to seek out a priest in the first place. Father Mychal was unlike other priests I had known: some apoplectic and unapproachable, others warm and caring—all ineffective in helping me understand the incomprehensible elements of my religion. Catholic-school educated as a young girl, I was continually warned of the dire consequences of straying from the faith. Yet so much of what I’d learned made no sense to me as a child, and much less as an adult. Father Mychal seemed to understand. “Sometimes I feel that way, too,” he said, laughing, when I disclosed my feelings of ambivalence. Despite his laughter I believed him. “You have to do what feels right to you,” he continued, “and listen only to yourself.” After spending an hour in his presence I felt I had embarked upon a profound spiritual journey replacing the road to hell I thought I was traveling on before our meeting.

When Javier met Father Mychal, he experienced a similar apotheosis. Javier, who is Bolivian and went to a very strict Catholic elementary school in La Paz, thought he had had it with priests and religion when he came to New York. But, as we discussed the details of our wedding, I could tell Javier liked Father Mychal and that the feeling was mutual. As we said goodbye they were patting each other on the back, like best buds. As for Desiree—for days she went about our apartment repeating “Far Mychal.” As in far out.

Father Mychal told us that the church schedule on the Saturday Javier and I had planned to get married was crammed with activities and appointments.

“So…” he admonished Javier. “That means 10 o’clock North—not South—American time. Don’t get me in trouble with the pastor.”

I nudged Javier, who—it’s true—was rarely on time; yet, I was the one who was late for our wedding. As soon as I woke up that morning I had a panic attack. I had meant to—but could not—prepare for the sacrament of matrimony by confessing my sins. How could I do that when I didn’t agree with the Church on what constituted a sin? I hadn’t murdered or robbed anybody. At the same time I didn’t want to be disrespectful, and now it was too late. Fortunately, I had a friend helping me get ready who pretty much pushed me out the door.

“Can we not do a Mass?” I said to Father Mychal, who had been frantically pacing the vestibule, according to what Javier later reported. “Can we just keep it simple?”

“We’ve got all these people in there waiting for a Mass. Of course we’re doing a Mass.”
As he laid his hands upon my head, I felt that any adversity lurking inside me had just packed up and left. Banished. Just like that.

After the ceremony Father Mychal remained to take photos with us, in spite of the fact that I’d made him late for his next commitment. In one of the shots, I stand between him and Javier, leaning closer to him than to my husband. I remember inhaling the scent of his freshly-laundered robe and the feeling of peace and security I had standing next to him.

“I’ve always been afraid of priests.” I whispered to him while my friends were snapping our pictures.

“Me too,” he whispered back.

After the wedding Javier and I made a point of showing up at St. Francis more frequently. Desiree loved the beautiful old church. “Far Mychal?” she would ask as soon as we pushed her stroller around the corner from Seventh Avenue onto Thirty-first Street. While I liked all the friars I considered Father Mychal to be my special friend. He never failed to approach us and hug us after Mass; sometimes he invited us in to chat, particularly if we hadn’t seen him for a stretch of time.

Besides regarding Father Mychal as a priest, I realized from the start that I also saw him as a man, a man to whom I was deeply attracted. I knew this from the way my heart raced whenever I spotted him. He was so readily accessible, he always said the right thing, he was funny—what more could a woman want in a man? When I mentioned this to Javier, who had many of the same qualities himself, he said that he felt the same way. You just wanted to be near the man.

At some point in the mid-eighties Father Mychal left the country to go for an extended visit to England. What will I do if I need him while he’s away? I wondered. When he returned I felt relief. He was my emergency back-up plan in the event of a crisis in my life. I thought of him as my own personal 9-1-1 and kept that feeling alive by greeting him and filling him in on the details of my life whenever I had the chance. When Javier and I had our second daughter, Valerie, Father Mychal christened her.

“Would you like me to come and bless your house?” Father Mychal asked one Sunday, as we had coffee together in the friary.

“Would that be the Catholic equivalent of a mezuzah,” I joked, and he laughed.

“Call me, or stop by, and we’ll set a date.”

I wanted to invite him to dinner; my biggest regret is that I didn’t. We had recently moved to Washington Heights and I told Javier it might be too much to expect a busy man like Father Mychal to travel that far. The real reason for my reluctance, though, was that while our new apartment was bigger than our studio in Chelsea, it was also quaint—meaning cockroaches and a bathroom door that had been painted over so many times it didn’t quite close. At the time I still didn’t fully comprehend the unimportance of such matters to Mychal Judge.

And then I didn’t see him for a very long time. Three months? Six months? More? I went into the church office to inquire.

“Oh, he’s now the chaplain for the fire department,” the woman said. “He’s very busy…not here all that much.”

I gaped at the woman, not knowing what to say.

“But he might be upstairs now,” she said, offering me the phone. “Why don’t you call him and see.”

I declined. Was it that I didn’t want to bother him? By then, my marriage was in trouble and I felt reluctant to tell him. Would he be disappointed in me?

One Sunday, when there was a call for Eucharistic ministers, I signed up. I wanted to know what it would feel like to take a more active role in church affairs. As a child I was envious of altar boys and badgered one particular nun in grade school over the question of why there were no altar girls. And, on a more adult level, I viewed it as an opportunity to continue to grow spiritually.

They needed me for Saturday Mass. Week after week I’d go to church, sit inside the altar, and distribute Communion at the appropriate time. I did this for over a year. I didn’t then, and I don’t now, consider myself to be religious. But it was important to have that time to be more in touch with my spiritual self, an aspect of my being that sometimes got lost in the complexity of trying to balance the demands of work, the educational and emotional needs of my two daughters—teenagers, by then—and the frustrations of a marriage that wasn’t working so well anymore.

On the evening of September 11, 2001, while Javier, Valerie, and I—Desiree had just departed a few weeks earlier to start her freshman year at Williams College—sat silently in front of the TV, trying to make sense out of all the senseless details of the day, it was I who noticed the news crawl.

“Oh, look,” I said. “Father Mychal’s down there.”

Of course he would be down there.

And then the words registered: the fire chaplain was dead. We sat silently for a long time staring at the TV. I kept waiting for the news to crawl around again with a different message. We made a mistake. Sorry. He’s actually alive. As reality took over, a cloak of profound sadness enveloped me as the horrors of the day suddenly became personalized for me. And the fear. What would I do now if a crisis arose in my life? Like this one.

One thing I knew for sure was that I wanted to administer Communion at his funeral.

I’m sure they didn’t ask me—I’m sure I had to beg to be allowed to be a Eucharistic minister at the funeral mass. The details are vague in my mind; what is clear is the memory of being there and the incredibly great honor it was. I learned that Father Mychal had thousands of friends with whom he’d had special relationships, just like me. The Clintons, Rudy Giuliani, Steven O’Connor, thousands of fire fighters and the widows of fallen fire-fighters. I distributed wine to scores of people who considered themselves his friends, and I was grateful and humbled for the privilege of being there.

Although I still occasionally go to Mass at St. Francis of Assisi, I never sat inside the altar as a Eucharistic minister again.

My kids are now grown, and my husband and I are no longer together. Often, while going through the rough transitional stages of Javier leaving and the girls going out into the world , I thought of Father Mychal. So many times I wished I could sit down and talk to him about my sadness and anxiety. Although I had never called upon him before for a personal crisis, I was finally in the exact situation I knew he could help me with. He was the one person who could help me find the answers I needed.

I have since discovered that, if I sit very still and listen, he is there helping me with the answers. With empathy, without judgment. Whenever I am at my most despondent or irrational, all I have to do is conjure up the image of my friend on the steps of the church on my wedding day, or his hands touching my head, and I can find my way back to sanity.

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§ 3 Responses to “My Friend, The Fire Chaplain”

  • Kate Walter says:

    I was really taken by this heartfelt personal essay. The
    writer did great job of injecting her spiritual journey into
    this piece and showing Father Mychal’s warm personality.
    This was very well-written, especially the way the writer
    moved through time.

  • Mindy Lewis says:

    I was moved by this beautifully written and deeply felt story. Father Mychal comes alive on the page as the author deftly weaves the threads of two lives that intersect with surprising, dramatic consequence.

  • Rhona says:

    Thanks for posting the link to your article. Your relationship with this special man is so lovingly articulated. Although a profound loss, you were fortunate to have known him.

§ Leave a Reply

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