“ Today I call heaven and earth to witness against you: I am offering you life or death, blessing or curse. Choose life, then, so that you and your descendants may live in the love of God.”Deuteronomy 30:19
It was a beautiful Wednesday morning. The sun was shining and skies were blue. And feelings of relief, sadness and hope mingled in the air as we gathered in the courtyard to commemorate the first anniversary of the September 11 attacks. The words of Deuteronomy were the starting point for my reflections that day as we gathered a 1000 strong: students, faculty, family members and friends. Bruce Springsteen’s The Rising provided the soundtrack, a soundtrack of hope and possibility, of the strength of community, of love overcoming hate. The songs of The Rising and the words of Deuteronomy helped create the tapestry of the year.
While a year and a lifetime of experiences separated September 11, 2001 and September 11, 2002, the days began remarkably alike: Beautiful fall days, wonderful days to be at Prep, great hope for the new school year. And both days called forth the finest in our community. In 2001, Fr. Keenan, Mr. Reidy, Mr. Dandorph and I were a few minutes into our first administrative team meeting of the new year just around 9AM when it became clear that something was wrong. The meeting ended and a flurry of activity began: Gathering students whose parents worked at the World Trade Center, making contact with families, coordinating pick-ups, keeping the students and faculty informed and securing reliable information.
Downtown Jersey City resembled a scene from a disaster movie as cars were coming from every direction to leave via Grand St. We made the decision to stay in school. Prep was a much better place to be than most other options. We would go through a normal day on a day that was anything but normal. Yet through it all I had an unwavering faith in the ability of our faculty to accompany our students through the horrors of the attacks, even while dealing with their own loss and grief. During the day, hundreds of students were picked up by parents. Student council leaders and the senior soccer players were great in tracking students down throughout the campus. At the end of classes, all who remained gathered in the cafeteria. We prayed together. In preparing for our gathering I searched for words from scripture that would somehow speak to us. I found those words in an Old Testament lament, “I look to the east and see utter destruction. To the west, the north and the south, destruction…”
But in the midst of destruction we had already started our own search for meaning. We made sure everyone had a dependable way to get home. Faculty went out to confirm that the Light Rail and buses were running after two police officers on different corners gave us different answers and NJ transit said they weren’t really sure. Mr. Hamp, Mr. Boyle, Mr. Irvine, Mr. Hansen and others drove students home. The New York students all went home with Jersey classmates. Before the day had ended we learned that most of our parents were safe but the father of freshman Tim Hughes was missing. There was word of lost alums. We were left to decide what to do next.
After one day off, we were back at school. We believed that the community was stronger together than dispersed. Together we could pray, debate, discuss, reflect, share and cry. Together we could walk the road finding God where we’d least expect it. When we came back to school on September 13 virtually every student was there. It was confirmation of the value and power of community.
That night the cafeteria became a shelter for residents of Battery Park City and lower Manhattan. With cots from the Red Cross, we started out with 26 people until Kelly DeMarco, wife of Mike ’77, came to take people to her home. She was not alone, and before long there were only a dozen people left with us.
The days ahead were filled with the expected and unexpected. I have memories to last a lifetime. Memories of Dan O’Brien, S.J. who lost many friends from the New York City Fire Department, preaching in the Madonna Chapel about forgiveness and the need to forgive even when every bone in your body tells you not to. It was the gospel of the day. And Dan’s preaching that day was as powerful a witness of faith as I’ve known. Of the three generations of the Aziz family coming to our Interfaith Prayer Service in Saint Peter’s Church nine days after the attacks because their Muslim faith was not about terror, but about peace and brotherhood. Of Joe Battista ’02 unexpectedly joining me at St. Stephen’s in Kearny for Tom Sullivan’s memorial mass. Joe never knew Tom or his family but he said to me quite simply, “He was a Prep guy. It is the right thing for me to be here.” Of Tony Azzarto S.J. finding endless treats for those taking shelter in our cafeteria, and of the steadfast and faith-filled leadership of Jim Kennan, S.J. Of Jim DeAngelo and Sue Baber remaining with me that night at Prep until after midnight and then all of us finding comfort in the familiar as we went to the Flamingo for dinner. Of Joe Parkes, S.J. celebrating the mass for his friend and classmate John Crowe ’62 and the great dignity of John’s wife Pam and his sons Jeff ’91 and Brian ’94 who I was honored to know from my days on the faculty. Of the celebration of Keith O’Connor’s life and the parade his wife Sandy led from Sts. Peter and Paul Church to Willie McBride’s. Of the lines in Red Bank for Bob Parks’ wake and the scores of Red Bank Catholic kids there. They reminded me of the good things happening in Catholic schools near and far. Of mass in Madison with the extended Hughes family, and of the great admiration all had for Ed Keane ’53.
Memories of the smoke rising over the Trade Center site for months; and the smell of that smoke as I stood on the Grand St. steps; of the relief when the smoke and smell finally stopped and the realization that things were getting better; of the work of Steve Katsouros, S.J., Jim Dinneen, S.J. and Ed Roselle at Ground Zero in the days following the attacks.; of Ed, a Jersey City Police Officer by day and Prep football and wrestling coach by night, bringing dozens of Prep hats and shirts to the workers at Ground Zero; of Nick Hamilton ’02 calling from Loyola to remember me and Prep as the anniversary approached; of the commitment of Patter Hellstrom and the studio art students to creating a mural that would serve as a fitting tribute to those lost and the freedoms we cherish; of workshops on trauma; discussions of terrorism and the start of war, a war which still rages, in Afghanistan. And as the war started so did our daily prayer service in the lobby. For the remainder of the school year we gathered every morning to pray: for peace, for those lost on 9-11, for the military, for those responsible for 9-11 and for ourselves. We sang, and it wasn’t always on key, with Scot Hovan on guitar. Different faculty members offered a reflection each day. I remember Kate Walsh reading a letter she wrote to her friend Jesus when she was about 8. Kate had recently rediscovered the letter. There was great reassurance in the faith of a child remembered. Some days we were eight at the prayer service; some days we were eighty. We had a speaker series, Perspectives on War and Peace, with Admiral Steve Tomaszewski ‘68, Retired US Ambassador to Yemen Charles Dunbar and Fr. Drew Christiansen, S.J., editor of America, speaking respectively on military, diplomatic and theological perspectives on war and peace.
And as a community we spoke about the importance of what we do and about the purpose of Saint Peter’s Prep: To form men who in all they do–as parents and spouses, as ministers and priests, in whatever field of employ they find themselves–think critically and act deliberately to create a world where peace and justice reign and God’s kingdom is made real.
A year after the attacks, Deuteronomy was our text, and it was clear that through all the pain and suffering, through the seemingly endless lament of the bagpipes, the Prep community had chosen life, so we and our descendants would live in abundance. So we would cherish the memories of those lost and live lives in love. I am certain that this pleases the alumni and friends who were taken from us on 9-11, and I am certain it pleases the God with whom they dwell.
“Choose life, then, so that you and your descendants may live …”