A Shepherd Bids Farewell to His Flock

By Matthew Fenton Downtown Express

Fr. Kevin Madigan, Pastor of St. Peter’s and St. Joseph’s, Leaves Lower Manhattan

Fr. Kevin Madigan, who served for 13 years as the pastor of both St. Peter’s Church (on Barclay Street) and St. Joseph’s Chapel (in Battery Park City), and who shepherded Downtown Catholics through the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, has left Lower Manhattan.

The highly regarded priest — who is known for engaging, sometimes provocative sermons — said his last mass as pastor of St. Peter’s on August 26. He has been transferred to St. Thomas Moore Church (on East 89 Street) as part of a policy under which the Archdiocese of New York rotates pastors among parishes every 12 years.

“I had never set foot inside either St. Peter’s or St. Joseph’s when I was assigned here,” Fr. Madigan recalls. “I guess you could say I bought them sight unseen.” In the late 1990s, he remembers, “both parishes ran like clockwork, which is highly unusual. But this was a daytime community then — many people worked nearby, but almost nobody lived here. So there were very few weddings, or funerals, or sick calls. And after six in the evening, it was a ghost town.” Fr. Madigan remembers that, “to indulge my weekend hobby of doing the Times crossword, I had to go all the way to 14th Street to find a newsstand that was open on Saturday or Sunday.”

The area’s transformation into the fast-growing residential district that it has become was rooted in the tragic events of a bright September morning 11 years ago. “I had just finished hearing confessions in St, Peter’s,” Fr. Madigan recalls, “when a secretary ran in and told me that a small plane had hit the World Trade Center.” He ran outside, “and I quickly realized that it was a lot more serious than a small plane accident. There was an enormous ring of fire near the top of the building, and debris falling everywhere.” As he walked the streets around the Twin Towers complex, searching vainly for wounded or dead to anoint, “there was an ear-splitting roar and another explosion. I remember seeing the wheel of an airplane fly over my head, and water fell from above and splashed onto my shoulders.”

After going back to St. Peter’s to make sure that the church’s staff were unharmed and to send them home, he returned to the street, still trying to find a way to help. “I was near the subway entrance at Vesey and Church Streets when the South Tower collapsed,” he remembers. “A Transit police officer shouted for everybody to get down the stairs and barricade themselves against the wall. We were all blinded and gagging from the debris cloud, and couldn’t go back outside. So we linked arms and the policeman walked us along the subway tracks to Warren Street, where we came back up to the street.”

“Priests are trained to think about the problem of evil,” he reflects, “but as of that day, it became less theoretical and more concrete for me. I remember thinking that whoever was behind this had done the worst they could possibly do. There was a man sitting on the steps of St. Peter’s sobbing, because his brother worked on a high floor in the North Tower, and he was sure his brother was already gone.  I tried to console him, and urged him not to lose hope.”

“The first two years after 9/11 were very difficult,” Fr. Madigan reflects. “Almost all of our parishioners were displaced, and many of them never came back. But there was also a tremendous sense of coming together to rebuild the community. The rootedness of Battery Park City was one of the foundations of that effort.”

He counts among the happiest achievements of his tenure, “the rebuilding of both St. Peter’s and St. Joseph’s. In the end, that was a powerful sign that evil had not won. The way that people rallied and worked together made the power of hope and human resilience vivid and tangible for me.

Living through 9/11 and everything that followed changed me, by making me much more flexible. Sometimes the best solutions are the ones that we have to make up as we go along.”

Although Fr. Madigan says he is looking forward to new challenges at the parish he is taking over, he adds that, “I’m not quite done with Downtown, yet.” He’ll be returning this weekend (Sunday, September 9) to host a panel discussion at St. Peter’s Church between Muslim, Jewish, and Christian scholars on themes that are common to all three faiths. The conference will mark the launch of a new book, Three Testaments: Torah, Gospel, and Quran, that provides an interfaith perspective on the sacred texts of the three Abrahamic religions.

“I’ll also be participating in a Buddhist-Catholic conference in Lower Manhattan in September,” Fr. Madigan says. And for any parishioners who wish to say farewell, the departing pastor will also be celebrating a pair of final masses (one at St. Peter’s and the other at St. Joseph’s) on the last two Sundays in September.

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