A Pilgrimage to The Cross at Ground Zero

A Massive Pile of Twisted Metal

From the moment we had been given a picture of the 20-foot steel-beam cross, found by a workman in the rubble of the World Trade Center two days after the September ll tragedy, our hearts were inflamed with the desire to pray at the site of “The Cross.” With the New Jersey mission approaching, it seemed like a not-impossible pilgrimage. Now here we were, October 18, 2001, watching the smoke rise in the distance between the remaining skyscrapers.

Setting foot on the streets of Lower Manhattan we walked toward the site of Ground Zero. Most of the streets dead-ended on the fenced-in site. The police and military presence was considerable. Wending our way around to the first police barricade, we inquired about passes to enter the site. We were directed to another checkpoint. Several checkpoints and much walking later, we were advised to go to Pier 92, the Command Center that coordinates all Ground Zero operations. The subway trip to Midtown Manhattan was not without its own intrigue: at one point the train stopped mid-tunnel with the announcement that there was a police investigation at 34th Street and we would proceed as soon as it was cleared up; only a brief delay.

The streets were barricaded outside Piers 92 and 93. I.D.’s were required there and at several successive points of entrance. Pier 93 houses a huge operation providing Chaplain services, the Red Cross and various social services for surviving families of the tragedy, coordination of volunteer services, and a temporary Mayor’s Office. A brief interaction at the barricade led us to continue to Pier 92.

At each required point of surveillance, we wondered if we might not realize our desired goal, as security was constant. We proceeded, trusting in Divine Providence to open or close the doors. Accompanied by a police guard, we took the elevator to the main floor of the Command Center in Pier 92. Again, showing identification we repeated our request: “We would like passes to Ground Zero to pray at the cross.” We were told to wait and a police officer would come out to talk with us.

About forty-five minutes later (we had just begun to pray the Mercy Chaplet together) Sgt. Valentino Suarez came out to speak with us….”Sisters, there are dozens of crosses down there”……and finally “I’ll see what I can do.” More waiting…..The sergeant returned. “Vice President Cheney just arrived at the site. When he leaves I’ll try to get you down there. How about a cup of coffee?” We followed him into the Center and he graciously offered a much welcome lunch (it was now after 3:00 p.m.) provided by the Red Cross for all the workers at the center.

Following lunch Sgt. Suarez arranged for picture I.D. passes, hard-hats, goggles, nose masks, and together with a young police officer, Stephen Brown, drove us to Ground Zero. On foot through another security post, and there it was: a massive pile of twisted metal and gray ash several stories high. Two skeleton walls, fragments of concrete and steel, ten or twelve stories high, one for each of the towers, stood leaning amidst the rubble. In what remained of one of the towers a large area still burned, smoke rising, so hot we were told, firemen couldn’t get near it; their boots had melted.

At the Foot of the Cross

We observed the holocaust from a raised wood platform constructed for families to view the grave of their loved ones. They come hoping for a semblance of closure so necessary when death comes to those dearest to us. A woman near us sobbed, surrounded by her family. We prayed silently.

At a 30-degree angle to our left about a block away we could see The Cross. The workman who discovered it said it was standing almost erect in the rubble and he cried for 20 minutes upon finding it. On October 3, workers hoisted it atop a 40-foot high concrete foundation, formerly a pedestrian walkway. Construction workers, firefighters and police officers stood quietly by as Franciscan Fr. Brian Jordan blessed it with holy water. Rescue workers have made pilgrimages to pray or meditate near the cross.

We were not able to pray at the cross for safety reasons, but Sgt. Suarez and Officer Brown drove us by it. We stopped at the foot of the cross for a few moments, sobered and grateful at the realization that we were given the privilege to be so near it. In Father Jordan’s words, “Behold the glory of the cross at ground zero. It stands as our symbol of hope, our symbol of faith, our symbol of healing.”

New York Has Changed

Leaving the site we drove back toward Pier 92. Our original plan for the day was to attend the 5:30 evening Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Given the longer time for events to unfold, our hopes dimmed as the day wore on. It was now after 5 p.m. as Sr. Anne Marie asked tentatively, “Could you possibly drop us off at St. Patrick’s?” With unflagging generosity Sgt. Suarez responded “Certainly.” He was off-duty using his own time to escort us. Maneuvering through bumper-to bumper, curb-to-curb, quagmire of rush-hour traffic cross-town, he and Officer Brown deposited us at the steps of the Cathedral. We said our grateful good-byes in the middle of bustling Fifth Avenue and dashed into St. Patrick’s in time for the consecration and communion with our faithful Lord. Yet another little miracle.

It was dark as we left St. Patrick’s. We walked toward the Subway, past Rockefeller Center. The overabundance of blazing lights and discordant sounds of the city were a radical departure from our quiet contemplative life in the Ohio countryside. Down into the underground transit, we emerged at 42nd Street. The blocks were extra long heading toward the Ferry with fewer and fewer signs of human activity, the streets becoming dark and all but deserted.

We inquired at a police substation, “How far to the Ferry?” “Several blocks,” came the answer. “A shuttle goes by here every half-hour but one just passed.” Out into the dimly lit streets again and after a short distance a bus marked “Ferry” passed us. Surprised but hopeful we run after it waving, shouting, “Stop! Please Stop!” The driver didn't see or hear us. Suddenly, out of nowhere, we hear a high-pitched “Whoop! Whoop! Whoop!” An unmarked police car, black as the night, flags down the bus and holds it, as we run the quarter-block to climb aboard at the back door. The police car disappeared into the night before we could express our gratitude. It seemed to us the hug of our Father, the final sign of His care and blessing on our pilgrimage.

Throughout the day we were often aware of little signs of caring, the courtesy and sensitivity of the people, military, firefighters, and most especially of the New York City Police. At every opportunity we spoke a brief word of encouragement. “Thanks for a great job!” “We pray for you!” Sr. Alexandra Marie was dauntless in giving away countless Miraculous Medals with a smile and a gentle, “This is a reminder of God’s love for you.”

The last lady we spoke with us told us, “New York has changed. A month ago people ignored each other, were rude and thoughtless. Since September 11 people are more courteous, more considerate, more concerned for one another.” We came away believing God has given hope for a renewed reverence for life to New York City and to our nation.

Sr. Grace Anne Wills is a sister in the Franciscan Sisters, TOR of Penance of the Sorrowful Mother, Toronto, OH. She was a widow for 15 years before entering religious life. She has seven children and twenty grandchildren and is seamstress and coordinator of the Altar Bread Department for her community. For more information on Sr. Grace's religous community, write torsisters@juno.com.

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