After 5 Years, Faith Endures on the Waterfront; Hoboken, Jersey City Mark the Sorrowful Anniversary
by Michael C. Gabriele, Editor

Father Michael V. Guglielmelli, the pastor of St. Francis Parish in Hoboken, lights a candle with a prayer for peace. Five years ago, the parish served as a neighborhood refuge for those stunned by the 9/11 tragedy. Because of their close proximity to lower Manhattan, residents of Hoboken and Jersey City had a frighteningly clear vantage point of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. "Everyone had a horror story," Father Guglielmelli said.
Candles still burn at St. Francis Parish.

The view from Hoboken and Jersey City on that fateful Tuesday morning five years ago was terrifying. Many Catholics, standing side by side with people of other faiths, watched in horror as the Twin Towers burned, crumbled and the world changed.

Today the vista is haunting in its clarity; painfully revealing when one considers what is no longer there. Like no other vantage point in the United States, a person can pause in reverent silence on this waterfront in the Archdiocese of Newark along the Hudson River estuary, gaze at the New York City skyline and contemplate the nightmare of Sept. 11.

Wounds endure as do sacred prayers for loved ones. Heroic, dramatic tales of compassion, courage, faith and hope also survive. Estimates vary slightly, but around 700 New Jersey residents perished at Ground Zero; many were members of the Church of Newark. Hoboken lost more than 50 sons and daughters; over 30 Jersey City residents perished.

"Every day is precious," Father Michael V. Guglielmelli, the pastor of St. Francis Parish in Hoboken, said, reflecting on his experiences from Sept. 11. "Everything we have in life is 'on loan.' This is what I preach in my homilies. Disasters bring out the best and worst in people. The hardest part (after five years) is getting people to talk about their emotions."

Alifelong city resident, Father Guglielmelli said that his parishioners have remained strong in their faith. "People deal with it differently," he said. "It's left its mark. For the most part, there's no anger. Mostly (my parishioners) still feel pain and sorrow."

Father Guglielmelli shared anecdotes of people from his parish: a woman who lived through the Feb. 26, 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center and 9/11; the family who lost a beautiful daughter ("She's with God"); a Hoboken fireman who knew instinctively that his cousin-a New York City fireman-had died when the towers collapsed.

His most vivid memory involved a missionary from Molfetta, Italy, who was visiting St. Francis Parish at the time to help celebrate the annual feast of Our Lady of the Martyrs ("Madonna dei Martiri"). The Italian priest, anxious to be a tourist before his return to Europe, had made plans to go to the top of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11.

The restless winds of New York harbor carry prayers for those who were lost on 9/11 as well as the memories of those who still mourn. Pictured here is a view of lower Manhattan as seen from across the Hudson River waterfront near Exchange Place in Jersey City. The photo is composed to illuminate what is absent from the skyline: The Twin Towers of the World Trade Center.

A frantic Father Guglielmelli ran downstairs from his living quarters that morning in search of the priest, after being alerted to the terrorist attack by a phone call from his sister.

As it turned out, the visitor from Molfetta was safely sitting in the parish rectory, watching TV newscasts of the horrific events. The Italian priest decided not to go to New York that day, confessing that he felt insecure to make the journey alone across the river due to his limited ability to speak English.

Father Guglielmelli and other Hoboken residents went to help at the nearby ferry port, which became a triage center to assist those escaping from the calamity. "We saw the whole thing. You could smell the acrid smoke from across the river," Father Guglielmelli recalled.

In the days that followed, St. Francis Parish served as a refuge and neighborhood information/communication center. The church doors remained open day and night. People would enter to pray, console one another and light candles.

"Our church is small, but we're a big family. We're very proud of our candles," Father Guglielmelli said. "They mean a lot to our parishioners. You say a prayer and light a candle. The candle symbolizes that the prayer continues even after the person leaves the church."

Msgr. Frank G. Del Prete, the archdiocesan judicial vicar and the pastor of Ss. Peter and Paul Parish in Hoboken, admitted it's difficult to find the right words to comfort those still scarred by the attack. The best way to show support and concern is simply to be present. "Just 'be there' for them," Msgr. Del Prete advised. "Listen to what they have to say. We can't give up on our faith."

The day had a surreal, disorienting quality, he said. "Early that morning, the janitor at our church mentioned to me that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center," he said. "I assumed he meant a small, private plane. Not long after that, a parishioner came running into the church, upset and crying, saying that we were under attack. I hadn't seen the news reports at that point. I didn't understand what he was talking about."

Jersey City Mayor Jerramiah T. Healy, who credits his Catholic education as the foundation for his political career and professional life (see The Catholic Advocate, Nov. 23, 2005), praised Jersey City's first responders - fire fighters, police officers and other volunteers-who rode the ferry boats back to New York and into the Sept. 11 "cauldron." Mayor Healy, a lawyer and councilman at the time, was at the city courthouse at 595 Newark Ave. He went to the ninth-floor hearing room of the building where he and others watched as the second plane smashed into the South Tower.

Bayonne resident John Guarini remembered seeing the Twin Towers burning along the horizon in his rear-view mirror as he drove west on Interstate Route 280. Today, Guarini is the chairman of the 9/11 Memorial Committee of Jersey City Inc. He and other committee members dedicated a memorial (built from Twin Tower remnants) exactly one year after the attack. The memorial is located in Jersey City at the foot of Grand Street, one block from the NJ Transit light-rail line, near the Exchange Place PATH train station.

Pictured above is a view of the lower Manhattan skyline from the Hoboken train station. The Hoboken Clergy Coalition will hold an ecumenical prayer service next Monday, Sept. 11, at 6 p.m. on Pier A, located near the train station. Call Rev. Mary Forrell of St. Matthew Trinity Lutheran Church at (201) 659-4499 for details. Separately, there will be an all-day vigil at the Jersey City 9/11 memorial next Monday beginning at 8:45 a.m. Citizens will be invited to offer prayers, poems, songs and remembrances. The memorial is located in Jersey City at the foot of Grand Street, one block from the NJ Transit light-rail line, near the Exchange Place PATH train station.

A retired plumber, Guarini answered the call to volunteer at Ground Zero the day after the attack, utilizing his metalworking skills to help clear the massive tangle of steel at the site. It was there-amid the smoldering destruction-that Guarini rediscovered his Catholic faith; a profound religious experience, as he described it. Today he and his family are members of St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Bayonne.

Instead of being filled with hate, Guarini said he became inspired by the compassion of other volunteers working in the rubble. He was moved by the courage of the 343 firemen who lost their lives that day; by the anguished recorded phone messages of those trapped in the Twin Towers, desperately trying to contact loved ones to say goodbye.

Gary Nye, a Muslim and a Jersey City resident, serves with Guarini as the co-chairman of the memorial committee. "We've become good friends," Guarini said of Nye. "Gary has been an inspiration for me. He spoke with great compassion for the victims. He worked tirelessly on the monument project. He was the guy who picked me up when I was feeling down. He always wanted to do more."

As for reflecting on the tragedy, Guarini said that "no matter what we do, it will always be 'too soon' to talk about Sept. 11. But we have to talk about it. We don't want this to be forgotten. This was a crime against humanity. This was murder.

"Don't lose your faith," Guarini continued. "Do things to help someone in the name of peace."

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