Father Mychal Judge was born in South Brooklyn, New York, on May 11, 1933, older of fraternal twins with sister Dympna. An older sister Erin was born in 1930 and brother Thomas Emmett the following year, but he died at fifteen months. Parents Michael and Mary Ann met while emigrating from Ireland to the U.S. aboard the S.S. Celtic in 1921. Mychal was named Robert Emmett at birth and called Emmett through his youth.
Emmett's father was hospitalized in 1936 with masoiditis and remained there for three years, through nine surgeries until his death in June, 1939. Mary Ann's temperament became increasingly volatile making home life difficult for the children and driving away other family members. Emmett was raised with little positive male support.
Emmett was educated at the local Catholic parish school, St. Paul's, and was drawn to the Church serving as altar boy from a young age. Emmett was also an urban explorer, riding the train into Manhattan with friends to make money shining shoes and walk around the bustling streets. Following grammar school, Emmett was enrolled at St. Francis Preparatory School, run by Franciscans who maintained a very strict discipline. Emmett was miserable there. Against his mother's wishes, he applied to the Franciscan seminary in upstate New York and was accepted. At fifteen years of age he left home for St. Joseph's Seraphic Seminary, outside of Callicoon.
The academic expectations and discipline were rigorous at St. Joseph’s. Judge persisted and finished there in six years. Then he moved on to St. Bonaventure’s Monastery in Paterson, New Jersey. The life of a novice there began with one year of being cloistered, i.e., confined to the monastery at all times. As a novice Judge began to wear the simple Franciscan brown habit and sandals which marked his appearance throughout his life. Judge completed the novitiate on August 12, 1955. He then continued on the path to holy orders by taking the “simple vows” declaring his intention to live a life of “poverty, chastity and obedience.” Symbolizing the act of starting a new life, Judge took a new name. His first choice was his father’s name Michael, but there were already other Michaels in his province. So he prefixed his mother’s maiden name to become Fallon Michael Judge.
Judge spent the next six years in further academic study, the last three at Holy Name College in Washington, D.C. Again the scholarly rigors were challenging and he feared failure, but he persevered. Finally on February 25, 1961, he was ordained as a priest in the Franciscan monastery next to Holy Name. He took the name Father Michael Fallon Judge. The following day he celebrated his first mass at his home parish in Brooklyn--St. Paul’s.
After a final year of training at St. Anthony’s Shrine in Boston, Judge was assigned to St. Joseph Parish in East Rutherford, New Jersey. While he would have preferred to be in New York City, Judge immersed himself in his parish duties and began to develop the personable, even charismatic style that would mark his priesthood. The “opening the windows” of the Church actions of Vatican II were a boon to him. The head parish priest did not warm to Father Michael’s compassionate pastoral ministry and kept him under a tight leash. Judge's writings and communications with confidants noted that his pastoral style and emotionally intimate relationships with both men and women included sexual attractions. This realization only appeared to renew his commitment to a celibate life.
A change in the pastoral staff at St. Joseph's in 1971 brought a different, more open and energetic, team of priests. Judge's ministry thrived during this time. Because the rule of the Franciscan order limited a priest to serving six years in a parish, Judge moved on in 1976 to become an administrator and campus priest at Siena College outside Albany, New York. Judge again excelled in ministry there, but the intense pace of his nonstop work for so many years was taking a toll on him. Judge admitted to a fellow priest that he had to drink himself to sleep every night. He connected with Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and attained sobriety. He remained a participant in and a public advocate for AA the rest of his life.
In the late summer of 1979, Judge was moved to a rural parish in West Milford, New Jersey. This was disheartening for Father Michael who understood the strength of his ministry to be in the city. After six years in West Milford, Judge was ready to move on so he requested a year-long sabbatical at the Franciscan Study Center in Canterbury, England. He arrived in Canterbury in 1985 sporting a small gold earring and exuding his exuberant passion for life, which led to him being pegged as a nonconformist or liberator--depending upon the perspective--by the other friars. During his year in England he learned of the fourteenth century mystic, Julian of Norwich, and resonated with her message that "all shall be well."
Judge returned to the U.S. in early September 1986 and moved into the Franciscan friary on West 31st Street in New York City. After years of visiting the city and imagining life there, he finally had the chance to be a priest there--a role that he wholeheartedly embraced. He took an active role in the friary's ministry with the homeless and hungry. He began assisting another friar in his duties as chaplain to the New York Fire Department. While diving into a wide variety of priestly activities, he also stopped wearing the earring, cut off the rattail that had grown down the back of his neck and changed the spelling of his name to Father Mychal, which he thought looked more Irish.
AIDS broke out in New York at this time. Persons with AIDS--mostly gay men--were being ostracized, routinely denied health care and funeral services. Judge linked up with the sisters at St. Clare's Hospital which had opened the city's first AIDS ward and began an active AIDS ministry. He visited, counseled and supported persons with AIDS and their families and friends. He made countless hospital visits and presided at many funerals over the next several years. In developing his ministry with gay men with AIDS, Judge got to know and counseled with other prominent gay Catholics, such as Fr. John McNeill and Brendan Fay. He supported and participated in the local Dignity chapter.
When the Fire Department Chaplain Julian Deeken was diagnosed with cancer in 1990, Judge was asked to fill in chaplain duties temporarily. The risk-taking, male camaraderie and Irish subculture that marked the New York City Fire Department did appeal to Judge. Father Mychal's ease in listening to and compassion in responding to persons in crisis soon made him a favorite of many fire fighters, as well as some political leaders in the city. His rising prominence in the city led to tensions with John Cardinal O'Connor, head of the New York Catholic Diocese. Judge found that his relationship with O'Connor only became more difficult in the years that followed.
In November 1991, through AIDS ministry friends, Judge met Al Alvarado, a nurse who had moved to New York from the Philippines. Judge developed a close relationship with Alvarado that was discreet and constant through the rest of his life.
When Fire Chaplain Deeken died in June 1991, Father Mychal was asked to take his position. But Judge found that he was so busy with his AIDS and homeless ministries and other priestly functions that he asked to remain in the role temporarily while a permanent replacement was identified. However, over the next several months he found his connections with the fire fighters growing even stronger as he prayed beside them as they fought fires, sat at their bedsides as they recovered from injuries and grieved with families after their deaths. In February 1992, Father Mychal accepted the appointment as the chaplain to the New York Fire Department.
Over the next several years Judge continued to juggle many different personas--as the hearty Irish chaplain to macho fire fighters, spiritual guide to mayors and political leaders, charismatic priest who presided at public funerals and masses, buddy and nurturer to homeless persons, compassionate friend of persons with AIDS, and gay rights advocate who marched in Gay Pride Parades and attended other gay events. Biographer Michael Daly draws upon the Celtic mythic image of "shapeshifter" to describe Judge's uncanny ability to adapt himself to provide the right presence and words in each particular human situation. People in all walks of life were drawn to him as pastor, friend and confidant. Judge tended to keep these different identities separate one from the other; so much so that, following his death, many "close" colleagues in his fire fighting and political circles were shocked to learn that he self-identified as a gay man.
In 1999, at the urging of a friend, he began to keep journal of his thoughts and experiences as gay man--one that might be published later on. Judge wrote this for several months and then stopped.
Father Mychal Judge emerged into the U.S. and global spotlight when he accompanied fire fighters to the World Trade Center towers on the morning of September 11, 2001. He prayed fervently and tried to provide a positive presence amidst the unimaginable chaos and tragedy there. Father Mychal was one of the first responders to die and his body was carried away before the collapse of the towers. Photographs of his body being removed from the rubble became an iconic symbol of love in the midst of the horror of that day. His death was the first officially recorded casualty in that disaster. His funeral was held on September 15 at St. Francis of Assisi Church and drew an estimated 3,000 persons.
(This biographical profile written by Mark Bowman from information in The Book of Mychal by Michael Daly.)
Biography Date: October, 2011