Our Heroes

BY Mubarak Dahir

September 11 2011 4:00 AM ET

COVER 849 XLRG | ADVOCATE.COMFather Mychal F. Judge
New York City

The fire department chaplain died while administering last rites at ground zero.

When news of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center reached Father Mychal F. Judge, the silver-haired chaplain of the Fire Department of New York did what he’d done many times: He rushed to the side of the firefighters he so affectionately called his “boys.”

While burning debris filled the air and steel beams melted under apocalyptic heat, the Franciscan priest took off his helmet and knelt beside a mortally wounded firefighter to administer last rites. As he knelt, debris crashed down from the one of the towers, striking him as he prayed and killing him. Judge, 68, was the first person to be officially declared a victim from ground zero.

Among the more than 3,000 mourners who attended Judge’s funeral — held September 15 at St. Francis of Assisi Church in Manhattan — were former president Bill Clinton and New York senator Hil­lary Rodham Clinton. Bill Clinton called Judge’s death “a special loss” and said, “We should live his life as an example of what has to prevail.”

Judge’s friends in the gay community couldn’t agree more. In the early days of the AIDS epidemic, when many priests were, at best, silent on the issue, Judge was one of a small pool of priests who would preside over gay men’s funerals. Soon it became apparent that it was more than Judge’s incredibly big heart that helped him identify with gay men and lesbians.

“It’s 1991, and I’m standing on the street at the [St. Patrick’s Day] parade, doing a story” about the event’s ban on gay groups, recalls Andy Humm, who cohosts the New York cable program Gay USA. Most Catholic priests ran when they saw Humm approach. “But here’s this guy in a Franciscan robe, gesturing to me to come over and interview him,” says Humm. While speaking to the TV journalist, Judge not only spoke out against antigay bigotry but also, a couple of years later, came out to him. “He always tried to be the image of the [Catholic] church that is inclusive and compassionate,” Humm says.

Edward Maloney, who runs Manhattan’s Out of the Closet AIDS Thrift Shop, also fondly recalls his first encounter with Judge.

“He whooshes into the store in this flowing brown cassock,” Maloney says, laughing. “And he’s talking loudly and all bubbly, and everyone stops what they are doing to find out who he is. He was very theatrical.” From that day on, Judge visited the shop regularly with donations. Once, when a neighborhood dry-cleaning store closed and gave away unclaimed apparel, Judge scooped up 500 garments and shuttled them to the store.

Maloney once asked if Judge would donate a fire chief’s hat to the store. Judge rolled his eyes and answered, “Get in line! Do you know how many gay men want one of those!”

When Maloney inquired how the priest survived in the convervative archdiocese, “he put his fingers to his lips as if to shush the question.”

“Father Judge was neither out nor closeted,” Maloney says. “He knew how to walk that fine line and work behind the scenes. He brought bravery, dedication, loyalty — and a touch of sexuality — to the two institutions he cherished: the church and the fire department. He loved moving in those two male worlds.”