The motto of Staten Island’s Catholic school, where Msgr. Edmund Whalen serves as principal, is “Men 24 hrs a day, 7 days a week, and 365 days a year.” Who knows if the firemen and the policemen who studied here said those words to themselves on the morning of September 11 2001 while they ran to help, whether aware or not aware of the danger inside the Twin Towers of New York’s World Trade Center, which two planes had just crashed into. 23 of them died when the two buildings collapsed. Every year, on the eve of September 11, their names are read out loud in the school’s lecture hall. They are remembered as role models by the students, they became their confidantes, since Msgr. Walen asked them to choose one of them as lifelong companion, especially when human existence is marked by steep slopes and chasm. On September 11 2001 Msgr. Whalen was serving as parish priest in St. Benedict’s church in the Bronx. Manhattan was clearly visible from the windows of the adjacent school and so was the smoke and the fire that started pouring out from the southern part of the island after the terror attack.
What do you remember about that day? The neighbourhood’s response to the tragedy. Our church became a shelter for healthcare workers, firemen, policemen, and all those involved in emergency efforts. Roads were closed and people walked for hours to reach their families. Many opened their doors also to first responders, offering them a moment of rest. I will never forget our church, filled to the brim with people gathered in prayer.
We lost many of our parishioners, but we felt no anger or disappointment. On the contrary, we tried to encourage others to contact families to allow displaced people to find them and join them. I understood that more than ever, in those circumstances our strength flowed from our Christian vocation; from the faith.
How did you live the days after the tragedy? There was a predominant feeling throughout the whole city, namely:
To care for others.
Taking care of the police officers working around the clock and of families who had lost their dear ones, or of the children whose mother had been looking for her husband, and thanks to a person from our parish who offered to look after them she could go into Manhattan to learn what had happened. There were many moving episodes, and no feelings of anger or revenge. In fact, there was a great sense of unity, a feeling of mutual responsibility, especially those who had lost a parent: those were the ones who most needed our care, not only to help them cope with the first emotional reactions but also at a later stage, in the future.
I imagine that many people asked you for words of comfort in those moments. What did you tell them?
It’s hard to explain, but the most important thing for everyone was simply being together, without too many words or explanations. Loving the other person was the only way to give meaning to something that had none, to give an answer to a travesty of religion. It meant comfort from the product of hatred and evil.
You were in the frontline of first relief efforts, along with other priests. What did you do exactly? We were asked to remain in the morgue – a huge white pavilion set up on the East River – to pray and bless the remains of the bodies that were being brought in. Then we were asked to give comfort to the rescuers. I remember one cold and rainy night, it was the end of September-first October. I was seated on a lunch-box, drinking a hot tea with an officer from the government’s disaster relief agency. He was an agnostic. At a certain point he said: “When all of this is over I want to speak with you at length and understand the meaning of your presence here, the reason why you are doing this”. He was impressed by the fact that many of the first firemen, police officers and responders who swarmed in the Twin Towers to offer their help and were killed in the buildings’ collapse were Catholics. “They knew what to expect and they know that they will be killed by the fumes of the rubble they are digging – the officer went on – nonetheless they are there, they will not leave, they have no feelings of anger or revenge.” I thought about the 23 alumni of my school who died in the attack, and that perhaps in those moments they had told themselves that they had to be Christians 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Finally he said: “They came in at all hours, bringing a finger or an arm, and you stood here the whole time welcoming everyone with deep care and respect. There must be something special in your religion if you manage to treat these corpses in this way.” I was touched. The witness of the Gospel needed no words.
You were in that morgue from September throughout November. I assume you witnessed many difficult situations. Do you remember some in particular? I remember an evening when one of the rescuers asked me to celebrate Mass because some of the responders couldn’t attend the previous Sunday. I could clearly read on their faces that many of them hadn’t entered a church for a long time, and that all of them had a deep yearning for God, a thirst for answers to questions and doubts, the yearning to speak man-to-man and to cry out asking God where he was. Responding with goodness to so much evil changed the heart of the many youths who were there, many of them reflected within themselves, they rediscovered the value of the human person and the awe towards God that was there in those moments when everything seemed lost. The same thing continued happening in the parish church, where Mass was celebrated even with empty coffins, and when after months the remains of the corpse was found we held another memorial service.
It was a long period of hanging questions.
How were the relations with the Muslim community after September 11, given the origin of the terrorists… Some people experienced difficulties in their mutual relations, but not in our school where there is no distinction between a Muslim, a Christian or a Jew: all our pupils see each other as human beings. Schools have a great role in social understanding, for they can further the establishment of lifelong comradeship among pupils. In Staten Island there are very good relations with the local mosque, but a lot depends on the faith of a place, on the situation inside a given district, on the feeling of belonging to a community.
How will you commemorate September 11 2017?
With the pupils of Farell, my school. They risk seeing this event as a chronicle of facts, lacking the direct experience of their parents or neighbours. In fact it is also for them that on the eve of the recurrence I celebrate Mass and a person reads out loud the names of the victims, so they may feel that all of this is real , it isn’t something that is distant from them. At the end they ask real questions and they are surprised of the extent to which, during those days, people joined efforts offering their solidarity and help.
Which lesson should we learn from September 11?
The power of unity and love.
September 11 left a mark in every person, some people answered with anger, while others found faith. We try not to forget. We always remember the names of former pupils who died on that day and we pray for them: also the basket-ball team, before every match, passes in prayer in front of the garden bearing a plaque with their names, for if they gave up their lives as they did, it’s because they learned it in these classrooms, and in can be said that they grew into heroes. These are real people and that is why I ask students to choose a name that will accompany them in their walks of life, in doubts and joys.