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Booklet tells how priests lent a hand on 9/11

Thursday, September 11, 2003

By Ann Rodgers-Melnick, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

On Sept. 11, 2001, the Rev. John Kozar evacuated the 25 members of his Catholic missions staff from their office near the Empire State Building and set out on foot for his rectory near the burning ruins of the World Trade Center.

Police officers directing emergency vehicles flagged him down and asked him to pray for them. Kozar, a priest of the Diocese of Pittsburgh, did so. He continued on his way. Two young people on the street asked him to hear their confessions. He invited them into a nearby church, and discovered it full.

Kozar found great meaning in his priesthood that day -- as did the 24 other Catholic priests whose experiences at different crisis points on that day are recorded in a new booklet.

"I feel blessed that Christ placed me in this circumstance as a priest to be able to offer consolation to those who were hurting and in need of his mercy," Kozar wrote in his essay.

He is one of four priests with local ties in "We Were There ..." The booklet was compiled by another Pittsburgh priest, the Rev. Edward Burns, executive director of the U.S. bishops' office for vocations. It was Burns' unenviable job to promote calls to the priesthood amid the clergy sexual abuse scandals of last year. Collecting the stories "was a great boost in my own ministry."

"This was a moment when people needed to understand that God was present in their life, and they looked to priests. ... These are good, dedicated men, holy priests, and they are not the ones getting the headlines today," Burns said.

Most Americans know of the Rev. Mychal Judge, the Catholic fire chaplain killed by falling debris as he knelt to bless the body of a fallen firefighter. "We Were There ..." opens with the Rev. Kevin Smith, a fire chaplain who blessed Judge's body and many others that day. Priests spent weeks in the ruins comforting workers, searched for victims inside the Pentagon and consoled families of the dead.

Priests with local ties include the Rev. Joseph McCaffrey, an FBI chaplain and pastor of Ss. John & Paul in Marshall. McCaffrey, whose story ran previously in the Post-Gazette, was called to the crash scene of United Airlines Flight 93 in Shanksville to provide emotional and spiritual support to FBI agents. He became a key liaison between federal officials, the families of the dead and the airline.

The Rev. Sean K. Code of the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, then at St. Peter parish in Somerset, was called to the local hospital to await casualties from Flight 93. None arrived because all of the passengers died. He helped to organize community prayer services.

The Rev. Conrad Osterhout, now novice master of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal in Yonkers, N.Y., had worked from 1984 to 1991 in campus ministry and administration at Franciscan University of Steubenville. He mobilized friars to provide mattresses and other supplies to emergency workers who flooded into New York fire stations from outlying cities.

Catholics were not the only clergy involved, and some essays mention ministering alongside ministers, rabbis, imams and others. But because police work and firefighting are traditions among many blue-collar Irish and Italian families in the New York area, church officials say that a disproportionate number of rescue workers killed in the New York attacks were Catholic.

Many of the priests in the booklet had "official" ties to 9/11, serving as chaplains to fire departments and agencies. Others, like Kozar and two priests from Minnesota who were vacationing in New York, just happened to be there.

"I was never more proud to be a priest than on September 11, 2001; but it affirmed my priestly vocation during the past 15 years in rural Minnesota," wrote the Rev. Jeff Ethen, a tourist who aided emergency workers and victims' families. He and a fellow priest had planned to have breakfast in the restaurant high in Tower One. A delay for early-morning coffee saved their lives.

One priest had so many requests from emergency medical workers that he turned an ambulance into a makeshift confessional, Burns said. Although it received little publicity, two priests recount finding Cardinal Edward Egan of New York, dressed in hospital scrubs, comforting patients and staff at St. Vincent Medical Center.

Copies of the booklet have been sent to all U.S. bishops and religious orders. The essays are also available at www.usccb.org/vocations/wewerethere.htm. Burns continues to collect stories for future installments.

"It was an opportunity for priests to do what priests do best -- bring people to God and God to people through word and sacrament," Burns said.


Ann Rodgers-Melnick can be reached at arodgersmelnick@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1416.

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