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Two decades after 9/11: Stories of faith in tragedy

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It has been two decades since the skies over Arlington were clouded by black smoke.

Two decades since the date “Sept. 11” was woven permanently into the fabric of the 184 families who lost loved ones at the Pentagon that day in 2001.

The Arlington diocese, 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, specifically when American Airlines Flight 77 flew into the Pentagon, killing 184 people.

In the two decades since, the Catholic faith has helped many to process what happened that day, as it provides a lens through which to view tragedy — in light of eternity.

‘ALWAYS A PART OF ME’

Lisa Dolan, a parishioner of the Basilica of St. Mary in Alexandria, lost her husband, Navy Capt. Robert E. Dolan Jr., in the attack on the Pentagon.

Capt. Dolan, 43, was working as the strategy and concepts branch head under the Chief of Naval Operations on the west side of the Pentagon at the time of the attack.

 

He called her at 8:55 a.m. 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. “Then, just moments after the second plane flew into the South Tower, I knew it was no accident.”

She tried to call her husband back but never got through. 

Months later she would learn that her husband was busy working on the crisis in New York when Flight 77 struck the Pentagon.

Lisa picked up her children from their schools in Alexandria — Rebecca, a sophomore at Bishop Ireton High School, and Beau, a fourth grader at St. Mary School.

Throughout the day, she kept trying to contact anyone who might know where her husband was.

As she watched the television images of the Pentagon burning, she said she “knew in my heart that he was gone.”

“I couldn’t understand why my husband, with so much love and goodness in him, was taken so young.”

Several priests from Ireton came to pray with the family that afternoon, and their support continued for months afterward, she said.

That weekend, Lisa said she was “bound and determined” to go to Mass with her two children at St. Mary’s.

“That Sunday my heart sank, because I realized that my family was very different,” she said.

In the years following, Lisa sought to honor her husband’s legacy by getting involved in multiple 9/11 volunteer projects — including helping found the Pentagon Memorial Fund, which fundraised to build the National 9/11 Pentagon Memorial just outside the impact site on the west wall. The organization is currently fundraising to build a visitor center on Columbia Pike, near the Air Force Memorial.

Every year the St. Mary’s School awards the Captain Robert E. Dolan Citizenship Award, which recognizes a graduating student for their exemplary community involvement and selfless actions.

Lisa has not remarried in the 20 years since.

“In my eyes I’m still married. I feel like he walks beside me every day,” she said. “I often tell people Bob and I were together for over 20 years, and in that time, he gave me enough love and memories to last me a lifetime.”

She said there is a difference between “moving on” from tragedy and “moving forward.”

“Why would I move on and leave my loved one behind? He may not be with us in the physical sense, but he’s always with us in a spiritual sense,” she said. “I personally vowed to never move on, yet I wouldn’t become trapped. I would move forward, taking my loved one with me in my mind and heart, always as a part of me and my life.”

DIOCESAN PRIESTS MINISTER

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 in the hope that it would “take me pretty close” to the cemetery — led him to a traffic backup on northbound Route 27, just to the west of the Pentagon. 

Shortly after 9:35 a.m., Father McGraw 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 said.

At the time, Father McGraw thought he had just witnessed a “tragic pilot error.”

Father McGraw 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.’ ”

Father McGraw was comforting a woman who was badly burned on her back, and she told him, “Tell my mother and father I love them.”

“I remember saying, ‘I will,’ ” Father McGraw said.

The woman, Antoinette Sherman, later died at a local hospital.

Nearby, Father McGraw came into contact with a badly burned man named Juan Cruz, who told him that he was Catholic. Father McGraw gave Cruz the sacrament of anointing of the sick.

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. 

Not much later, the news broke in to report that the Pentagon also had been struck by a plane.

“We were just uncertain what to do, and finally I decided I had to go down there,” Father de Rosa said.

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,” Father de Rosa recalled.

By the time Father de Rosa arrived, most of the injured had been taken away, but 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 inherent 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.

“There was a moment of reckoning, and I thought, ‘I mean, if I die here taking care of people, so be it.’ I mean, what am I here for? To go and save myself? The priests are here to go down with the ship, the sinking ship the people are on. We’re not here to save ourselves.”

‘OUR CHURCHES WERE FILLED’

That morning, Arlington Bishop Paul S. Loverde was in Fairfax at St. Paul VI Catholic High School, celebrating the annual Mass of the Holy Spirit to commemorate the start of the school year.

At that time, the gymnasium was too small to accommodate the entire student body at once, so there were two Masses offered that morning. During the first Mass, school administrators learned of the tragedy unfolding in New York City, and an announcement was made to the students at the conclusion of Mass.

Bishop Loverde changed the planned second Mass from the normal Mass of the Holy Spirit to a Mass praying for victims of the terrorist attacks that morning.

“The students, of course, were in lockdown and many were terribly upset — some had family, relatives, friends working at the Pentagon,” Bishop Loverde said. “I preached to give them some sense of hope, knowing they were not abandoned in that sense.”

What was normally a 40-minute drive from Fairfax to the chancery in Arlington took nearly three hours due to gridlock, he said.

“When I got to the chancery, from my office window I could see the smoke rising to the skies from the Pentagon,” Bishop Loverde said.

That night, he celebrated a Mass for the Pentagon victims at Blessed Sacrament Church in Alexandria.

Over the next few days, Bishop Loverde traveled to parishes across the diocese both to celebrate Masses and simply to be with his flock, he said.

“Our churches were filled with people those evenings, the Sunday following, and for several weeks afterward,” he said. “There was a new fervor, a new spirit of deepening faith. I was praying that it would last, but human nature being human nature, sadly, after a while I think people forget.”

In the wake of the attacks, diocesan Catholic Charities set up a Pentagon Assistance Fund to aid those affected by the tragedy.

In total, the local Catholic Charities spent about $130,000 to pay for rent, utilities, education, funerals, and mental health counseling for victims and families, according to Jeff Rostand, the organization’s chief financial officer.

Catholic Charities operated a counseling center at Our Lady of Lourdes for weeks after the attack, which provided free counseling services to those in need.

Various parishes and schools held grassroots fundraising efforts that raised thousands of dollars to help victims and first responders.

“We came together … as a great faith community in all of our parishes to really pray for the repose of the souls that (had) given their lives,” said Father Robert Rippy, diocesan chancellor at the time. “The strength of your faith community can really help the healing process.”

Father McGraw is now stationed at the diocesan mission in Banica in the Dominican Republic. Seven years after 9/11, he reunited with the man he anointed that day at the Pentagon — Juan Cruz.

The woman who had asked Father McGraw to tell her parents she loved them was Cruz’s co-worker, and through Cruz, Father McGraw was able to write to her parents relaying those sentiments.

Bishop Loverde called Sept. 11, 2001, one of his toughest days as bishop of the Arlington diocese.

“I will never, never forget Sept. 11 of 2001,” Bishop Loverde said. “It was so devastating. Part of my nature is a sensitivity to people, and you just wish you could heal immediately. You wish you could make it go away, but you know you can’t. The most important thing is just to be with people, let them know they’re not alone, and to remind them of the faith that we have.”

Riedl can be reached at matthew.riedl@arlingtondiocese.org or on Twitter @RiedlMatt.

 

 

 

 

 

 

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021