Upstate New York parish raising funds for statue of gay ‘9/11 saint’

August 10, 2011

Like most Americans, Brother Ed­mund Dwyer was stunned by early
coverage of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington,
D.C.

As he struggled to grasp the scope of the carnage, scrolling
type along the bottom of his television screen announced the death of
Mychal Judge, a legendary New York City fire department chaplain.

For
Dwyer, the vast tragedy became painfully real. "He was a saint," said
Dwyer, 90, a retired Brother of the Christian Schools who resides at
Christian Brothers Academy in DeWitt, New York.

He worked closely
with Judge during the 1980s, when both men comforted dying AIDS patients
in New York City. Judge was killed by flying debris at the World Trade
Center.

"He always wore his Franciscan robes, and he had a smiling
face and a beautiful manner," Dwyer said, recalling how Judge spent
hours with young men who felt abandoned.

As a tribute to his
friend, Dwyer is serving on a committee at All Saints Church in
Syracuse, which intends to honor Judge with a memorial. Fred Daley,
pastor at All Saints, intends to ask local firefighters to attend the
dedication.

While the memorial will honor those killed on
September 11, Daley said the way Judge lived his life carries special
meaning for the All Saints congregation.

Mychal Judge—like
Daley—was a Catholic priest who acknowledged publicly that he was a
celibate gay man. In June, after months of discussion, parishioners at
All Saints voted 256–3 to offer a statement of welcome to gays, lesbians
and transgender men and women.

Daley said the vote meshes with
his beliefs on what it means to be a Christian. "More and more, I've
been called in my spiritual life and in my heart to identify with the
powerless and with the broken, and I think some of that comes from my
own journey as a gay person," Daley said.

The Catholic Church
teaches that homosexual acts are inherently wrong. While a new state law
has legalized same-sex marriage in New York, the church does not
recognize those ceremonies. Yet officials with the Diocese of Syracuse
say that inviting gay men and women into a parish does not contradict
church teaching. "Our hope is that all parishes are so welcoming, and
it's certainly in line with who we are as Catholics," said Danielle
Cummings, a diocesan spokeswoman.

Paul Lawrence, 76, an All Saints
parishioner with a gay son, said family experience taught him a simple
truth about the gay community: "Once you meet these folks, you wouldn't
say they were gay or not gay," he said. "You'd just say they were
awfully nice people."

Meg Ksander, a staff member at All Saints,
said the journey toward the monument began last December with a series
of talks by parishioners who at some point felt excluded by the Catholic
Church. The congregation was especially moved by the stories of several
gay men and women who spoke of how they'd spent their lives feeling
ostracized.

As a result, Ksander said, a parish committee came up
with the statement of affirmation—and with the idea of a statue. "The
parishioners were talking about how our young gay folk so often had no
role models until recently, and [we] saw Mychal Judge as both an
interesting person and the ultimate example of a role model," said
Daley, who seven years ago decided to reveal that he was gay.

He
went public as a means of support for young people struggling with their
own identity, he said, and to underline that gay priests are not the
cause of the child abuse scandal in the church.

"I was a Buddhist
for many years, and now I'm a returning Catholic, and that's because of
the message of [All Saints] which is so pure, so beautiful, so tolerant
and so spiritual in the grandest sense of the word," said Michele
Mosca-Wells, a gay member of the parish.

She's also moved by the
plans to create a statue of Judge, who to her symbolizes the mission of
the church. "It's a wonderful affirmation," she said, "of being an
authentic Catholic community that embraces all and loves all."  —RNS