Tom Ryan was standing in front of St. Francis of Assisi Church Sept. 15 as the Franciscan priest's casket arrived: ``One of the guys who were his pallbearers was right in front of me when he stumbled. His hands started shaking. I just jumped out naturally and grabbed the coffin and became a pallbearer. I saw it as a sign from above. Here I am an out gay firefighter and wound up standing by his side as he did us over the years."
In an interview, Ryan, national president of Fire-Flag EMS, an organization of gay firefighters and emergency medical personnel, also saw his last-minute honorific role as a poetic justice of sorts: ``I had gotten off work that morning. We hadn't been seeing much of the news, because we were so busy. It was the first time I had seen an article on [the controversial remarks by Jerry] Falwell and [Pat] Robertson and I was just furious, ranting and raving in the kitchen."
Because he was a priest, Judge never declared openly that he was gay. But Ryan, a firefighter first grade in Ladder Company 12 Manhattan's heavily gay Chelsea neighborhood, recalls, ``I don't believe he ever denied that he was. He was very involved with helping gay organizations behind the scenes."
Judge, Ryan reports, was at St. Francis of Assisi on West 31st Street across from Ladder Company 24 and Engine Company 1 when the first plane struck the World Trade Center: ``He was in his room getting ready for the day's activities. Another priest saw a plane flying low just before it struck the building. [Judge] got in his car and drove to the site." It was about that time that it was learned that the firehouse captain had been killed.
Ryan, who was among those firefighters, police and emergency medical technicians who responded to the attack, described what happened when it was learned that ``Father Mike," as the 68-year-old Judge was affectionately known, had been killed when he removed his helmet while giving last rites to a seriously injured firefighter and was hit by falling debris:
``They brought his body to St. Peter's Church [nearby the site] and brought him up to the altar. He was covered with a sheet. They put his badge on top. We stopped what we were doing and had come down the street. We didn't even fathom that he was dead and paid our respects to him. As macabre as it was, it was beautiful." Later, Judge's body was brought back to the firehouse across from St. Francis of Assisi.
The city's gay leaders were among those who paid tribute to Judge. In an interview, gay state Sen. Tom Duane of Manhattan recalled the chaplain as ``a warm generous spiritual leader."
``He wonderful man, very inclusive," Duane notes. ``It's a tremendous loss not just to the firefighters, but also to the entire gay and AIDS communities. He often would say the funeral masses for people who died of AIDS." Duane says he thought Judge would wind up saying a mass for him. ``In the earlier days, I thought my HIV status would lead to an earlier death." Instead, the senator was among 2,000 attending the priest's funeral, along with Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, former President Bill Clinton, U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton, and their daughter Chelsea, who also knew Judge. Cardinal Edward Egan, New York's archbishop, officiated.
Activists say Judge's most memorable assistance to the gay community was helping Dignity and its AIDS services ministry when Cardinal John O'Connor expelled the gay and lesbian support organization from the archdiocese in 1986. When Dignity was forced to leave St. Francis Xavier Church, Judge, who as a Franciscan did not report to O'Connor, made a home for the group's AIDS outreach program at St. Francis of Assisi. He also allowed Dignity to hold masses at the Franciscan church.
Duane reports that Judge also participated in the St Patrick's Day parade in Queens, which allows gays to march. ``He was upset that gays were excluded from the big parade in Manhattan," the senator notes. The Queens parade organizers reportedly are considering dedicating the 2002 event to the priest's memory.
New York Irish-American gay activist Brendan Fay told LGNY, a gay newspaper in the city, ``at every opportunity, he was sharing with other people about his own life." Fay also pointed out Judge's skills at working with people of all types and backgrounds. ``There was a poignancy about him. ...He could visit people in tragic personal and family circumstances and put them at ease."
The Village Voice reported that friends said the chaplain was known as a gay man who appreciated the Gay USA show and celebrated the city's ``gorgeous men" by saying, ``Isn't God wonderful?" He frequently donated clothes to the Out of the Closet Thrift Shop for gay and AIDS causes.
On the special TV program ``America: A Tribute to Heroes," viewed by more than 90 million people Sept. 21, the actor Tom Cruise gave a tribute to Judge, noting that ``He knew without a helmet that he would be in danger but it was not his job to be safe." Cruise quoted Judge's fellow Franciscan Father Michael Duffy's eulogy at the funeral: ``We come to bury his voice but not his spirit; his hands but not his works; his heart but not his love."