Sainthood call for fire chaplain rises from Sept. 11 ashes

NEW YORK — On a pilgrimage to the healing shrine at Lourdes last summer, Brendan Fay decided to pack something extra: 400 pictures of Father Mychal Judge.

Fay distributed them to his fellow pilgrims. In a crowd teeming with various languages and nationalities, "we didn't once need to explain who he was," recalled Fay, a longtime friend of Judge's. "Everyone recognized the 'New York priest.' "

That was Judge, the fire-department chaplain listed atop the official rolls of those who died at the World Trade Center — a modern martyr with perfect hair and a radiant smile. Many make their own pilgrimage down a two-lane stretch of North Jersey road to pray before his grave.

And many more believe it's time to make Father Mike a saint.

"What a wonderful idea — the possibility that there was a saint walking among us who died in such a magnificent way," said Burt Kearns, creator of a Web site urging Judge's canonization. "He's like a modern-day St. Francis."

Judge's canonization would be a true miracle on 31st Street, where the Franciscan brother divided his time between the friary and the firefighters at Engine Co. 1/Ladder Co. 24. Officials of his church and order haven't been keen on the idea.

But Judge's now well-chronicled life and extraordinary death provide the "St. Mychal" brigade with all the evidence they need to push for his sainthood.

A diverse flock

Judge, with his dry wit and boundless energy, tended to a flock that included all sorts: firefighters, homeless people, gays, alcoholics. His answering machine handled up to 40 calls a day; it took Judge just six months to wear one out. He maintained a schedule that seemed to pack 48 hours into each day.

But Kearns, like so many others, never knew about Judge's life until after his death.

In his capacity as chaplain, Judge was tending to firefighters at the World Trade Center when he died. Kearns was reading the newspaper in January when he was struck by the famous picture of rescue workers carrying Judge's limp body from the rubble — a shot compared by many to Michelangelo's sculpture "Pietà."

Three months later, Kearns opened his Internet campaign. He has received thousands of e-mails from people expressing their love for Judge, or asking for his picture, or seeking a relic from the priest.

"You get a sense of awe," Kearns said.

There was the single mother in Colorado, who named her new son Mychal. And the Australian firefighter, who proposed Judge as the new patron saint of firefighters. And the Arizona man, who offered any assistance at all in the canonization effort.

"I know in my heart that Father Mychal is already a saint," read one e-mail. "He is in heaven, flying with the angels and with our Blessed Virgin. God bless him."

Typically, consideration for sainthood must wait until five years after death, although Judge's backers hope for a waiver. It's unlikely, but so was the gregarious Irishman's posthumous elevation to star status.

The street beneath his old bedroom window at the friary now bears his name, as does a Hudson River ferry and uncounted post-9/11 children. His chaplain's helmet was presented to Pope John Paul II. One Judge biography is already on the shelves, with another one due next year. The New York-based Irish rock band Black 47 began performing "Mychal," a song about the priest; in addition to everything else, Judge was a big fan of the group.

Many who knew Judge believe the priest would find the attention a bit comical.

"He'd think it was a real hoot, you know?" said Frank Carven, who met Judge in July 1996 after losing his sister and nephew in the crash of TWA Flight 800. "I can imagine him looking down, seeing all this canonization talk, and just chuckling."

Judge's fellow Franciscans aren't laughing, but they aren't taking the push for sainthood too seriously. One of the order's leaders, speaking after accepting yet another award for the late priest, gently applied the brakes to the St. Mychal movement.

'A mistake'

"There is a rush to canonize Mychal these days, and I think it is a mistake," said Father John Felice, provincial minister for the friars. "He was a very human, flawed, complex person just like the rest of us. His real legacy ... is the stuff of greatness."

Fay, who brought the priest's pictures to Lourdes, felt mixed emotions about Mychal's proposed sainthood.

"It seems a crazy idea — putting him on a pedestal, making him untouchable," Fay said. "But he was in his life, by the voice of people, already a saint."

The voice of the church is another thing. Kearns and others believe stories that Judge was gay — but celibate — could undermine efforts. And canonization requires, among other things, verification of two miracles by the Vatican.

The stuff of miracles?

Kearns said his Web site has received four e-mailed stories with miraculous overtones.

One related the story of a Colorado boy, born on Christmas Eve 2001 and christened Mychal by his single mom. Before the boy was a month old, he required heart surgery. When it was finished, he was left with a hole in his heart that would require a second operation.

And then a follow-up visit to the cardiologist showed the hole had healed itself; no surgery was needed. "Yes," the mother wrote, "I do feel his namesake had a hand in this blessing."

Miracles aside, Carven said Judge "had the inherent ability to make you believe things would be OK, even when things were at their worst."

He met Judge at Kennedy Airport, where the priest was caring for the grieving Flight 800 families. Over the next five years, they became close; Judge died four days before he could attend the wedding of Carven's brother.

Carven recalled Judge's self-deprecating style, his no-frills approach to life. Judge was holy, humble, charismatic, comforting — yet it was difficult to think of the priest, his friend and confidant, as a saint.

And then he thought a bit more.

"If I had to point to a saint," Carven finally decided, "I'd probably point to Mychal."