I still remember precisely where I was when it happened – the morning our world changed forever. I was standing at a table, over by a window in Father Maco Hall (the old cafeteria of the former St. Ann Middle School in New Britain, Connecticut), with several other members of the parish’s Stewardship Committee. We were cutting out brightly colored felt hands and bold lettering for our new banner, destined to hang in the back of the church. It would read, “We are the body of Christ… many hands, one heart.”
As on so many mornings before, we had gathered to work on one project or another after daily Mass; we were all also members of the parish’s Good Shepherd Funeral Choir. All the others were retirees; I was the only 30-something in the bunch, but despite the age difference, these women had become my spiritual sisters and we truly enjoyed one another’s company. That day, we had assembled to work on the banner before the first of two funerals at which we would sing that morning.
Spirits ran high that bright September Tuesday. It was a perfect, glorious day and we were filled with enthusiasm for the project on which we were companionably working. We teased and joked as we worked, enjoying both the creative endeavor and the camaraderie we shared.
“Who’s got the scissors?” one would ask. “Oh, that would be me; I’m hogging them,” another would reply. “Who drew these letters, anyway?” someone else piped up. “That would be Sister Ellen,” a fourth replied, adding, “She did them freehand.” “Wow, she’s really talented…” the chatter continued.
And then it happened.
Mary, one of the women from the parish office, hurried up the five slate-grey stairs to report that a small plane – most likely a single-engine Cessna – had struck one of the World Trade Center towers in New York City.
I can still see the faces of my friends – Lois, Ann and “Buddy Grace” – as we stared at Mary and then each other. We murmured nearly silent prayers for the safety of those on board the aircraft and those in the building where the little plane had struck… and then we resumed our work – a bit less gaily now, our spirits tempered by the sobering news of what must surely have been a terrible accident.
But then it happened again.
Mary rushed back to the steps – and this time she didn’t even climb the steps to deliver the news. “Another plane just hit the other tower!”
No accident. We dropped our scissors and ran. Down the stairs and across the hard slate floor to the office. Someone rolled in a television set perched atop one of those high, wheeled A/V carts left over from the St. Ann Middle School days (back when I was a 7th grader there) and tuned it to one of the local news channels. It didn’t matter which one; they were all covering the story.
We stood, rooted to the worn carpeting, eyes locked on the awfulness unfolding in ghastly color, as the solemn voice of the anchor – doing his best not to sound frantic – related what he knew.
Just before 9:30, we trooped numbly out of the office and made our way across the street, taking our place in the choir area and prepared to sing hopeful hymns of resurrection, while our hearts were struck with horror at what we’d seen unfolding on the 22-inch screen moments before.
After the funeral, we returned – like lemmings headed seaward – to the office. Sandy and Mary’s stricken faces told us something unspeakably wrong had occurred in our absence. A third plane had struck – its target was the Pentagon. And yet another had gone down, this one somewhere in Pennsylvania. But the news got worse still: Both towers had fallen. We watched in silent shock as footage of the alternately burning and then crumbling towers filled the television screen, again and again. And now the bottom of the television screen was alive with a news crawl, providing snippets of updated news, augmenting the terrible reports the anchor was delivering. Vast, almost incomprehensible, numbers of possible victims: fifty thousand people routinely populated those two buildings on a daily basis. How many had gotten out alive? How many thousands more were perishing within?
Too soon (and yet, in a way, not soon enough) it was time to go back to the church for the 11:00 funeral. I don’t remember whose funeral it was; nor do I recall a thing the priest said… all I can remember was a terrible feeling of cold emptiness. But then, partway through the Mass, as we sang, I felt a warm rush flow through me and a pure, perfect sense of calm settled over me. I don’t know how I knew, but I realized at that second, it was the Holy Spirit offering consolation and peace. It was the greatest source of comfort I felt that day or in the days that followed.
Driving home that afternoon – it was about 1 when I finally left the parish center – it felt strange to be on the road on such a perfectly beautiful day and suddenly feel unsafe. I can’t have been the only one worrying whether a car or truck near me on the highway, in another act of terrorism, might abruptly explode. Here I was, surrounded by cars, and yet I felt so vastly and inexplicably alone.
When I got home, I remember gazing up into the clear blueness of an otherwise perfect Tuesday afternoon and neither seeing nor hearing a single jet. We live almost directly along an air route from New York to Bradley International; it seemed there was always a plane overhead. Until that day. Nothing. Nothing but eerily freakish silence.
That night, needing to reconnect spiritually and mourn the loss of thousands of my countrymen, I rejoined my parish family for a citywide prayer service. Christians and Jews, Muslims and Sikhs, Buddhists and Hindus gathered for the 7 p.m. prayer and remembrance event. St. Ann Church was packed so closely, people stood along both side aisles or crammed in the back of the church and surged out into the vestibule. The pastor even opened up the old organ loft to accommodate the overflow. And again, in the midst of that sense of emptiness and loss that enveloped me during the service, I felt that whoosh of peace – that reassurance from the Almighty – that He had everything under control. Right there was where I was meant to be just then – amid fellow Americans of faith, turning to God in a time of unspeakable horror, seeking oneness and peace.
My wish for you this September 11th is that you find that oneness – and that all the world may come to understand that same comfort, consolation and peace – the peace that found me all those years ago.