(This story was published in 2002).
By Gene Dermody
Note: Dermody knew Father Mychal when he spelled his name “Michael.” Out of respect for the deceased’s choice of spelling change, most of the references are to “Mychal.” Dermody mentions the name change below.
(Originally written Sept. 20, 2001 for Outsports.com
(Revised and expanded Sept. 5, 2002 for Brendan Fay (StPatsforAll.Com)
I now know why my grandfather chose that steep hill on which to build our home in 1950. I grew up with that phenomenal view from Centre and Hackensack Streets in Carlstadt, N.J. I remember the Manhattan skyline like it was part of my family.
Even the top floors of the old parish school where I prepared for my first communion and confirmation had the same incredible views across the meadowlands. When I was supposed to be studying my Baltimore Catechism, I would often be caught day dreaming by Sister Marianne, starring out of the windows at those mysterious buildings as if they were the pyramids of Egypt. Little did I know that I would someday live there.
The World Trade Center towers were started while I attended high school, St. Peter's Prep, in clear view across the Hudson River from downtown Jersey City. They were finished during my college years at NYU, and were the last stop on the PATH train from Hoboken. They soon began to take their place with the other preeminent icons of New York, the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building, when I lived on the Upper Westside of Manhattan.
The view from the top of the towers was one of the modern wonders of the world. I took every tourist there, and it always thrilled me. I also saw those towers in all seasons, all hours of the day, and from various vantage points: Brooklyn, Staten Island, Queens, and New Jersey. The views from the George Washington and Verrezano Bridges, the Lincoln Tunnel Weehawken approach, the Long Island Expressway Queens approach, or the New Jersey Turnpike in Elizabeth, were all perks I never took for granted as I raced around metro NYC in my baby-blue '66 VW beetle.
I reverse commuted daily from Manhattan to Paramus N.J. I kept a summer home in Montauk and I partied on Fire Island. My family vacationed in Lavalette at the Jersey shore. Whenever I returned to Manhattan, those Twin Towers were the first image to pop up on the horizon. Like the Colossus Of Rhodes, they stood guard over NY harbor, signaling that I was once again home, safe and sound.
In 1982 I took a gamble and moved to San Francisco to start a new life. I never considered myself a Californian, and always missed my home.
Besides the emotional reaction to the destruction of the towers last Sept. 11, the coverage of the NYC Firemen chaplain, Fr. Mychal Judge OFM (Franciscan), who died while giving last rites at the World Trade Center, also flooded me with memories. He was all over the 9-11 TV coverage last year, even in provincial San Francisco.
I remember Fr. Mychal being a generous and concerned man, who epitomized not only what a priest should be, but what a man should be. I distinctly recall that he was a strikingly handsome man, a wiry Mel Gibson type. He was my parish priest back in the '60s at St. Joseph's RC in East Rutherford, NJ.
Days in the Parish
St. Joseph's is a magnificent Romanesque church, an inspirational structure that always took my breath away with its majesty. For such an unremarkable blue collar parish, the church is an architectural gem. A few years ago, I had the opportunity to return to St. Joseph's after almost 18 years for my father's funeral. I wandered around the church, reliving memories, and inspecting as if it I owned the place. The choir loft was now locked, and a lot of the old ornate flourishes toned down by some new-age Cromwell.
I used to play the great pipe organ at the Sunday 9 a.m. "kids" Mass. I would sometimes stray from the boring communion interludes to some subtle Rolling Stones themes. Remember, this was pre 'Vatican II', when Mass was still a solemn Tridentine affair with white cassocked altar boys, bells, incense, and Latin. The nuns would never catch on to my musical inventions, and I would peer down from the choir loft to see which of my friends would notice. Fr. Michael once noticed the modulation from "Venite Creator (Come Holy Ghost, Creator Blessed…)" to "Paint It Black". He immediately paused, looked up at the choir loft from the altar rail where he was dispensing communion, and give me a look that struck terror in my heart. I knew I was in for it.
The pipe organ was so grand, and the acoustics of the church so incredible, that sometimes I would indulge in some inappropriate tunes on Saturday afternoons after those somber requisite confessions. I would sneak up to the choir loft like the 'Phantom of the Opera' and gradually push the envelope (and volume) until one day I attempted a very raucous Bach Toccata & Fugue. Fr. Mychal heard it over in the rectory, and rushed over to put a stop to it. As he flipped off the switch on the organ, he said something like, "Confessions do not need the added distraction of a concert, especially music written by a Lutheran, and played by a precocious wise-ass".
From that time, I was kept on a short leash, forced to adhere to the prescribed "Catholic" music, and finally graduated to the 11 a.m. "High Mass" as well as some funerals and weddings. When Vatican II kicked in, out went the organ and in came the boring ditties with folk guitars. I like to flatter myself and believe I lost my faith because of "'artistic differences" with Rome.
I also remember that all of us "puberty boys" would cleverly pass up Fr. Mychal's confessional, and line up for the older Italian priest, Fr. Justin, who spoke little English, and who had no idea what we were saying. One of our games was to see how many inappropriate "'sins" we could get past Fr. Justin-- "Bless me father for I have sinned …. I ate meat on Friday once. I was disrespectful to my parents three times. I urinated on my friends shoes once. I had impure thoughts 12 times, I ..." One Saturday, there were no priest names on the confessionals, and Fr. Mychal and Fr. Justin switched their usual assignments. Some of us were caught dead to rights, and given a lecture with a lengthy penance. I learned the term "inappropriate behavior" from Fr. Michael many times.
Fr. Mychal was the Catholic Youth Organization (CYO) advisor, of which I was the president for a few years. I can remember arguing with him about everything from the Vietnam War to civil rights to sex, drugs, and rock & roll, to (oh-yes) the "h" word. He never condescended or pulled rank. No matter how we disagreed (he was so liberationist theology, and I was a Goldwater Republican), he always treated me with consideration and respect, motivated by a sincere interest in my development as a person.
Fr. Mychal wanted to arrange a major CYO outing to the 1964 Worlds Fair in Flushing. It was to be my first big "event planning" experience, and he let me manage it all. As a token of his appreciation, he bought me an expensive bronze commemorative plate of President John F. Kennedy. The well known inscribed message was not lost on me (" Ask not what your country can do for you. Rather… "), and it instilled in me an obligation to serve my community. Thirty seven years later, that plate still greets visitors in the entrance foyer of my home.
A Father Figure
Our relationship was purely "apostolic," and he was for many years my father figure. I do however remember the day he showed up to help decorate the lyceum for the CYO Christmas party, wearing jeans and a plain white T-shirt instead of his brown robes. None of us could take our eyes off of him, as if he were a movie star.
In his remaining years at St. Joseph's, Fr. Mychal helped with the plans for my brother's church wedding, and was even involved in the bachelor party. It was the last time that I played the pipe organ and sang the Schubert Ave Maria at St. Joseph's. It was also the last time I saw Fr. Mychal.
Immediately following 9-11, my mother (who still lives in the parish), sent me clippings from the Bergen Record, but I was not immediately clued. I guess Fr. Mychal rediscovered his Irish heritage. Somewhere along the line, he must have changed "Michael"' to the Gaelic Mychal. That is why it took me almost a week to realize that I had not only lost the Twin Towers, but my Fr. Michael.
One final note, Fr. Mychal would sometimes become very annoyed with my stubbornness and stern convictions. I vividly remember this one admonishment which struck me then as weird. It went something like, "Gene, you analyze too much. Trust your heart a little more, and you will be a lot happier".
I did not "come out" until 1971, at the age of 21. I never really gave Fr. Mychal's advice much thought until right after the attacks. I guess he knew me better than I knew myself. I guess we are all thinking about a lot of things this week that we have taken for granted.
Gene Dermody runs the Golden Gate Wrestling Club and has long been involved with the Federation of Gay Games.