He was born Robert Emmet Judge in Brooklyn, New York, the son of immigrants from County Leitrim, Ireland, and the firstborn of a pair of fraternal twins. With his twin sister Dympna and his older sister Erin, he grew up during the Great Depression. His lifelong affinity for the poor began at a young age; he often gave his only quarter to beggars on the street.
From the ages of three to six, he watched his father suffer and die of mastoiditis, a slow and painful illness of the skull and inner ear. To earn income following his father’s death, Judge shined shoes at New York Penn Stationfrom where he would visit St. Francis of Assisi Church, located across the street. Seeing the Franciscan friars there, he later said, “I realized that I didn’t care for material things… I knew then that I wanted to be a friar.”
Life as a Franciscan friar
After doing his freshman year at the St. Francis Preparatory School in Brooklyn, where he studied under the Franciscan Brothers of Brooklyn, in 1948, at the age of 15, Judge began the formation process to enter the Order of Friars Minor. He transferred to St. Joseph’s Seraphic Seminary in Callicoon, New York, the minor seminary of the Holy Name Province of the Order. After graduation, he enrolled at St. Bonaventure University in Olean, New York. In 1954 he was admitted to the novitiate of the Province in Paterson, New Jersey. After completing that year of formation, he received the religious habit and professed his first vows as a member of the Order.At that time, he was given the religious name of Fallon Michael. (He later dropped ‘Fallon’ and changed ‘Michael’ to the Gaelic form, Mychal). He resumed his college studies at St. Bonaventure University, where he earned his Bachelor’s degree in 1957. He was allowed to profess his solemn vows as a full member of the Order in 1958. Following this, he did his theological studies at Holy Name College Seminary in Washington, D.C.. Upon completing these studies in 1961, he was ordained a priest.
After his ordination, Judge was assigned to the Shrine of St. Anthony in Boston, Massachusetts. Following there, he served in various parishes served by the Franciscan friars: St. Joseph Parish in East Rutherford, New Jersey, Sacred Heart Parish in Rochelle Park, New Jersey, Holy Cross Parish in the Bronx and St. Joseph Parish in West Milford, New Jersey. For three years he served as assistant to the President of Siena College, operated by the friars in Loudonville, New York. In 1986 he was assigned to St. Francis of Assisi Church in Manhattan, where he had first come to know the friars. He lived and worked there until his death.
Around 1971, Judge became an alcoholic, although he never showed obvious signs. In 1978, with the support of Alcoholics Anonymous, he became sober and continued to share his personal story of alcoholism to help others facing addiction.
In 1992, Judge was appointed a chaplain to the New York City Fire Department. As chaplain, he offered encouragement and prayers at fires, rescues, and hospitals, and counseled firemen and their families, often working 16-hour days. “His whole ministry was about love. Mychal loved the fire department and they loved him.” He was a member of AFSCME Local 299 (District Council 37).
In New York, Judge was also well known for ministering to the homeless, the hungry, recovering alcoholics, people with AIDS, the sick, injured, and grieving, immigrants, gays and lesbians and those alienated by the Church and society.
For example, Judge once gave the winter coat off his back to a homeless woman in the street, later saying, “She needed it more than me.” When he anointed a man who was dying of AIDS, the man asked him, “Do you think God hates me?” Judge just picked him up, kissed him, and silently rocked him in his arms.
Even before his death, many considered Judge to be a living saint for his extraordinary works of charity and his deep spirituality. While praying, he would sometimes “become so lost in God, as if lost in a trance, that he’d be shocked to find several hours had passed.” Judge’s former spiritual director, the former Jesuit, John J. McNeill, observed that, “He achieved an extraordinary degree of union with the divine. We knew we were dealing with someone directly in line with God.”
September 11th attacks
On September 11, 2001, upon learning that the World Trade Center had been hit by the first of two jetliners, Judge rushed to the site. He was met by Rudolph Giuliani, the Mayor of New York City, who asked him to pray for the city and its victims. Judge administered theLast Rites to some bodies lying on the streets, then entered the lobby of the World Trade Center North Tower, where an emergency command post had been organized. There he continued offering aid and prayers for the rescuers, the injured and the dead.
When the South Tower collapsed at 9:59 am, debris went flying through the North Tower lobby, killing many inside, including Judge. At the moment he was struck in the head and killed, Judge was repeatedly praying aloud, “Jesus, please end this right now! God, please end this!”, according to Judge’s biographer and New York Daily News columnist Michael Daly.
Shortly after his death, an NYPD lieutenant found Judge’s body. He and two firemen, an FDNY Emergency Medical Technician detailed to the Office of Emergency Management (OEM), and one civilian bystander then carried Judge’s body out of the North Tower. This event was captured in the documentary film 9/11, shot by Jules and Gedeon Naudet. Shannon Stapleton, photographer from Reuters, photographed Judge’s body being carried out of the rubble by the five men. It became one of the most famous images related to 9/11. ThePhiladelphia Weekly reported that the photograph is “considered an American Pietà.” Judge’s body was laid before the altar of St. Peter’s Catholic church before being taken to the medical examiner.
Mychal Judge was designated as “Victim 0001” and thereby recognized as the first official victim of the September 11, 2001 attacks. Other victims died before him including air crew, passengers, and occupants of the towers, but Judge was the first certified fatality because his was the first body to be recovered and taken to the medical examiner.
Judge’s body was formally identified by NYPD Detective Steven McDonald, a long-time friend. The New York Medical Examiner found that Judge died of “blunt force trauma to the head”.
Mourning and honors
3,000 people attended Judge’s funeral Mass on September 15, 2001, at St. Francis of Assisi Church, which was presided over by Cardinal Edward Egan, the Archbishop of New York at that time. Former President Bill Clinton, who attended the funeral, said that Judge’s death was “a special loss. We should lift his life up as an example of what has to prevail … We have to be more like Father Mike than the people who killed him.”
Judge was buried in the friars’ plot at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in Totowa, New Jersey. On October 11, 2001 Brendan Fay organized A “Month’s Mind Memorial” in Good Shepherd Chapel, General Theological Seminary, New York. It was an evening of prayer, stories, traditional Irish music, and personal testimonials about Mychal Judge.
There have been calls within the Roman Catholic Church to canonize Judge (declare his sainthood). While there is no indication that Rome is seriously considering this, several churches independent of Rome, most notably the Orthodox-Catholic Church of America, have declared him a saint.
Some Catholic leaders recognize Judge as a de facto saint. Some assert that Judge has already been declared a saint by widespread acclamation of the faithful, as was the custom of the early Church. There have been claims of miraculous healings through prayers to Judge. Evidence of miracles is required for canonization in the Catholic Church.
Judge’s fire helmet was presented to Pope John Paul II. France awarded him the Légion d’honneur. Some members of the U.S. Congress have nominated him for the Congressional Gold Medal as well as the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 2002, the City of New York renamed the portion of West 31st Street on which the friary where he lived is located as “Father Mychal F. Judge Street”, and christened a commuter ferry, the Father Mychal Judge.
In 2002, the United States Congress passed The Mychal Judge Police and Fire Chaplains Public Safety Officers Benefit Act into law. This was the first time the federal government ever extended equal benefits for same-sex couples, allowing the domestic partners of public safety officers killed in the line of duty to collect their federal death benefit.
Soon after his death, the New York Press Club instituted “The Rev. Mychal Judge Heart of New York” journalism award, presented annually for the news story or series that is most complimentary of New York City. Entries focus on good news about people, places and deeds.
A campaign has been started in Carlstadt, New Jersey to have a statue of Judge erected in its Memorial Park.
Alvernia University, a private independent college in the Franciscan tradition in Reading, Pennsylvania, named a new residence hall in honor of Judge.
The Father Mychal Judge Memorial in the village of Keshcarrigan, County Leitrim, Ireland was dedicated in 2005, on donated land which had belonged to Judge’s ancestors. People from the village and surrounding area celebrate his life every year on the 9/11 anniversary.
In 2006 a documentary film, Saint of 9/11, directed by Glenn Holsten, co-produced by Brendan Fay and narrated by Sir Ian McKellen, was released, celebrating Judge’s life. The film includes testimonies of work colleagues and people who met him at different stages of his life. Larry Kirwan, leader of the Irish-American band Black 47, wrote a tribute song entitled “Mychal” in honor of Judge that appeared on the band’s 2004 album New York Town.
The Father Mychal Judge Walk of Remembrance takes place every year in New York on the Sunday before the 9/11 anniversary. It begins with a Mass at St. Francis Church on West 31st Street, then proceeds to the site of Ground Zero, retracing Judge’s final journey and praying along the way. Every September 11, there is a Mass in memory of Judge in Boston, attended by many who lost family members on 9/11.
At the National 9/11 Memorial, Judge is memorialized at the South Pool, on Panel S-18, where other first responders are located.