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Faith helped many following attacks on Sept. 11

Chaplains and first responders reflect on how their faith has helped them in the 20 years since attacks

Father Stephen McGraw kneels in prayer behind a victim of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack at the Pentagon in Arlington, Va.
Photo Credits: CNS photo/Mark Faram, courtesy Catholic Herald
ARLINGTON, Va. — In the two decades since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, several Catholics in the Arlington Diocese — where the Pentagon was hit by a hijacked plane — say they relied on their faith that day and in the years since to process what happened.

The diocese, which is just across the Potomac River from Washington, is home to many government employees and military families. Many parishioners were firsthand witnesses to the horrors of Sept. 11 when American Airlines Flight 77 flew into the Pentagon killing 189 people (including the five hijackers).

Lisa Dolan, a parishioner of the Basilica of St. Mary in Alexandria, lost her husband, Navy Captain Robert E. Dolan Jr., in the Pentagon attack. The 43-year-old was working as the strategy and concepts branch head under the Chief of Naval Operations at the Pentagon.

He called his wife at 8:55 a.m. Sept. 11 to tell her a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center in New York.

“We discussed what a horrific accident it was — at that point in time what else would we be thinking but a terrifying accident?” Lisa said.

She picked up her children from their Catholic schools in Alexandria and kept trying to contact her husband or anyone who might know where her husband was.

After learning that he died at the Pentagon, several priests from Ireton came to pray with the family that afternoon and their support continued for months afterward, she said.

On the morning of Sept. 11, Father Stephen McGraw took a wrong turn on his way to a funeral at Arlington National Cemetery.

Father McGraw, only a priest for three months, was assigned as parochial vicar of St. Anthony of Padua Church in Falls Church.

His wrong turn — following signs for the Pentagon hoping that would take him close to the cemetery — led him to a traffic backup on a route just to the west of the Pentagon.

Shortly after 9:35 a.m., the priest heard the roar of a plane flying low overhead and felt the vibrations in his car.

He turned to his right and saw the Boeing 757 crash into the side of the Pentagon “and simply disappear into the building.”

He abandoned his car on the road, taking with him a purple stole, oils for anointing, and a book of prayers for the sick and dying. He jumped the guard rail and started praying on the Pentagon lawn, where victims were trickling out of the building.

“The phrase that kept coming to my mind was, ‘Jesus is with you,’” Father McGraw said. “That was the phrase I kept saying to them one after another, and more than once people responded affirmatively, ‘Yes, yes.’”

Meanwhile, about a mile and a half away, Father Francis de Rosa, parochial vicar of Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Arlington, had been watching TV news of the World Trade Center when he heard an explosion.

New York City firefighters and other emergency personnel surveyed the World Trade Center collapse Sept. 11, 2001.
Photo Credits: Anthony Correia | Reuters
He started walking toward the Pentagon until he reached a police blockade. A military officer, seeing the priest in his cassock, instructed officers to let Father de Rosa through, telling him “we could use some priests.”

He found no shortage of people needing to talk to a Catholic priest.

“I intended to minister to anyone who needed it, and also to be a Catholic presence there, to let them know that the Church is there,” Father de Rosa said. “I heard some confessions, and a lot of people just wanted to talk.”

Despite the danger in running toward a building that had just been the site of a terrorist attack, Father de Rosa said he had no second thoughts. This, he said, is what being a Catholic priest is about. “There were people in need and that was essentially my parish,” he said. “People were in need; I had to go.

Prayers, assistance and emotional support

BLUE POINT, N.Y.— Father Kevin M. Smith, a veteran fire chaplain, trauma counselor and loyal friend to scores of active and retired firefighters in the New York metropolitan area, receives more phone calls in early September than any other time of the year.

Most of the calls are from firefighters who served amid the carnage and chaos in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on New York City’s World Trade Center.

A fire chaplain with 30 years of service, Father Smith, 60, is commissioned by Nassau County, New York, to minister to members of the county’s 71 volunteer fire departments, many of whom work full time with the New York Fire Department.

Father Smith — pastor of Our Lady of the Snow Church in Blue Point in the Diocese of Rockville Centre — can empathize with the callers. He, too, was a first responder at ground zero, arriving near the scene as the World Trade Center’s North Tower was collapsing.

For Father Smith, Sept. 11, 2001, began at St. Rose of Lima Church in Massapequa, some 40 miles east of the city. An associate pastor at the time, he had been preparing to celebrate morning Mass when a parish secretary told him to turn on the television where he witnessed the second of two hijacked jetliners crash into the World Trade Center.

Several minutes later, his fire pager chirped, alerting him about the mass casualty incident.

After notifying his pastor that he was responding to the call, Father Smith jumped into his black Chevy Trailblazer — a vehicle with emergency lights and sirens — and headed toward the city.

Throughout the day and into the early hours the following day, Father Smith — protected by a fire helmet and bunker coat — offered prayers, emotional support and assistance to firefighters and other emergency personnel. A trained firefighter, he also helped search for victims.

As shaken first responders went about their business amid the mayhem, a number of them asked Father Smith to hear their confessions.

“They wanted absolution before heading down to ‘the pile’ because you didn’t know what was going to explode next, what was going to fall down,” he said.

For several months following 9/11, Father Smith would commute almost daily from his parish to ground zero, where he continued to offer support to the firefighters, including his brother Patrick, who was among those participating in the recovery efforts.

He said his faith helped sustain him through the difficult work and grueling schedule. “Prayer, adrenaline and the Holy Spirit,” were the emboldening forces, he said, adding: “I had a sense that God was with me.”

Gregory A. Shemitz contributed to this report.

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