From Ground Zero to Boston Marathon, Father Brian Jordan continues to run wherever he is needed  

By Kevin Armstrong New York Daily News

HOPKINTON, Mass. — Behind a pharmacy at the corner of Grove St. and Route 135, in a parking lot filled with buses, a hundred cops, firemen and FBI agents form rings — five people deep — around a priest standing atop a picnic table. It is 7:30 a.m. on April 21, two and a half hours before the 118th running of the Boston Marathon, the first rendition since two backpack bombs ripped through the crowd on Boylston St., 26.2 miles east. Father Brian Jordan, a Franciscan chaplain to the Boston firefighters readying for the footrace, is dressed in a brown robe with a knotted rope around his waist. It covers blue jeans and a “Boston One Year Stronger” T-shirt as he addresses members of his marathon ministry.

“The marathon is not a wake service,” he says. “The bad guys are gone.”

Massachusetts State Police helicopters hover overhead. Troopers line up alongside streets. Military snipers — dressed in camouflage fatigues and kneeling on rooftops — look out on the crowds in both directions through binoculars. Jordan, unfazed, hands out communion wafers stored in Dunkin’ Donuts coffee cups. He confers a blessing, and then offers a confession. He relates that the first Boston Marathon he ran was in 1979, when he was a young priest and former rugby player stationed at the St. Anthony Shrine in downtown Boston. He snuck into the field without an official entry number.

“I ran as a bandit,” he says.

Several women gasp; others giggle.

“I admit it,” he says.

Jordan, a son of Brooklyn’s Cypress Hills neighborhood and Blessed Sacrament parish, never ran more than 10 miles before that morning. He finished in 3:32, choosing to run in the middle of the road — declining to take water along the sides — so as not to draw attention to his rogue status. He needed a chair to sit on in the shower afterward.

“Real smart,” he says. “Of course I needed to drink water.”

He has hydrated better since, assuming a regular presence in 61 career marathons and developing into an unlikely link between Boston and New York, completing both cities’ marathons 21 times each. His work has outlasted Homeland Security alerts and citywide lockdowns as he assisted in recoveries from terrorist attacks and natural disasters, running for escape and blessing first responders. Trauma triggered his most public efforts, from Ground Zero ruins to Breezy Point ashes after Superstorm Sandy to Boston’s bloodstained finish line on Boylston St. No longer able to run due to a severe knee injury, he will attempt to inspire as marathoners reclaim the five-borough route Sunday morning, starting at Staten Island’s Fort Wadsworth with a fresh benediction.

“If there was gonna be a special forces for the clergy, Brian would be the equivalent of a Navy SEAL,” says John Ryan, a police lieutenant who met Jordan at Ground Zero. “Wherever there’s trouble and people need him, he’s there.”

He insists that he needed to run marathons along the way, and his range is eye-catching. In addition to the New York City and Boston races, he has run Chicago (10 times), Marine Corps (6), Dublin, Ireland (1), Toronto (1) and Philadelphia (1). He raised funds for laborers, fallen officers and murdered immigrants, but is paying the toll now, shelved by doctor’s orders that one more marathon could cripple what remains of a left knee he already had surgically repaired. For Jordan, there is no greater yearning than to run.

“I miss it more than I miss sex,” he says.

His flock is full of hard hats and irascible souls, shepherding the city’s union construction workers and St. Francis College students. He can say Catholic Mass in English and Spanish, but often prefers the vernacular of firehouses and precincts. In a locker, he keeps brass knuckles gifted to him by a Puerto Rican family on his 30th birthday when he served the Holy Cross Parish on Soundview Ave. in the Bronx. There is an honorary chaplain’s badge from the NYPD in his cargo shorts pocket. Cops familiar with his homilies and counseling at Ground Zero recall his comforting following 9/11. Firefighters in Boston reference his off-color encouragement on long training runs.

“Father can be shocking if you don’t know him,” says Mike Hamrock, a former Boston firefighter. “I remember him telling us, ‘The terrorists can kiss my Irish ass on the Boston Common.’ He’s the real thing. He gets to us.”

It is a frequent refrain about the friar with fervor. On the morning of the Boston Marathon last April, he walks by a bomb truck and takes out a bottle of holy water. He blesses the truck and small talks the U.S. Department of Homeland Security personnel.

“That’s about the first time in 10 years since I blessed a bomb truck,” he says. “Ten years. How about that?”

Law enforcement officials lead bomb-sniffing dogs past him. He limps along with Bill Griffin, the friend of a firefighter who attended Jordan’s pre-marathon Mass on Staten Island in 2004. Griffin details how he didn’t interact with Jordan then, but enjoyed his service and walked away with an unshakeable impression. Griffin later met Jordan again and helped recruit him to say Mass before the Boston Marathon. Griffin talks about the time Jordan, running with a bum knee, completed the Boston Marathon in 90-degree heat. It took Jordan, now 58, more than seven hours, but he crossed the finish line on Boylston St. Griffin winces at the memory as a Homeland Security official stops Jordan.

“Are you seriously running in your vestments?” the official says.

“No, no,” Jordan says. “The knee is weak.”

Ryan, the police lieutenant, remembers the first time he met Jordan. It was at the corner of West and Vesey Sts. in downtown Manhattan, a few days after the planes crashed. He was overseeing the rescue and recovery efforts at Ground Zero from a command post amidst the rubble, and Jordan appeared for entry. Jordan wore his robe, sans sandals — the footwear of the Franciscans. Instead, he donned construction boots.

“I had my doubts he was even a Franciscan,” Ryan says. “We’re in that uncertain time and here’s this guy in a robe? He was boisterous. A lot of disasters draw people who are a few cards short of a full deck. You sort of looked at him twice. It raised my doubts.”

Jordan had navigated an uncertain path to the site at first. He hailed a cab from Washington Heights when the towers fell, and then stopped at the Friary on West 31st St., only to learn that his mentor, Father Mychal Judge, a chaplain to the FDNY, died in the north tower’s lobby. Jordan first ran to the emergency room at St. Vincent’s Hospital, but a familiar Cuban nurse told him that they were overflowing with volunteers and clergy.

She told him to find somewhere that he was needed. He left the hospital and continued down avenues toward chaos, advancing against a stream of people running uptown. He helped with a bucket brigade at first, then blessed bodies and body parts. He told those questioning how God could allow such devastation that the terrorists “abused free will.”

His immediate immersion into the fray endeared the friar. He held mass on site, saying prayers while others sifted through remains. He retreated in the early mornings or late evenings to Breezy Point, a private enclave on the eastern edge of Queens, going on long jogs up to the Rockaway Beach boardwalk, the Atlantic’s tides at his side. For 20-mile training runs, he stopped at the Atlantic Beach drawbridge and turned around. His father, Gerard, a retired bakery-truck driver who was the shop steward in his Teamsters’ local, kept a summer bungalow in Breezy, a wind-whipped peninsula full of police and firefighters. He led the civil servants in prayer once again on Staten Island before the NYC Marathon two months later, handing out hosts as the group broke into, “God Bless America.” He ran that race with a firefighter already developing a cough. They kissed American flags held out by supporters along the Fourth Ave. stretch in Brooklyn.

“We were taking back the city,” Jordan says.

Few lifted more spirits than Jordan, but it was a discovery made by Frank Silecchia, a construction worker, that inspired the priest. In searching through the wreck, Silecchia discovered a steel beam in the symmetrical shape of a cross. He spray-painted arrows around the site, and on September 23, the second Sunday after the attacks, Silecchia happened upon Jordan giving communion to cops, firefighters and construction workers. Silecchia approached the friar and said, “Father, do you want to see God’s House?” Jordan thought he was referencing St. Peter’s Church nearby. Silecchia led him through a path. The cross was draped with insulation that resembled a shroud.

“This is what I’ve been looking for,’’ Jordan told Silecchia. “My prayer is answered.”

Silecchia expressed concern about it being lost in the removal.

“Frankie, no,” Jordan said. “We’re keeping it here.”

In the days, weeks and months that followed, Jordan moved to wherever “The Cross at Ground Zero” — comprised of a 17-foot steel column and a crossbeam — was re-located. The most poignant service came on the following Mother’s Day in May 2002. The cross was standing at the intersection of Church and Cortlandt Sts. then. There were mothers who lost their children in the crash in attendance, and Jordan invited soldiers in uniform standing nearby to join them. The kiss of peace portion of the mass lasted 10 minutes, the longest exchange Jordan ever witnessed. Soldiers and mothers wept.

“I never saw anything like that,” he says. “And I’ve seen a lot of s–t in my life: South America, Mexico, Morocco. You name it. These were tough, tough, tough, tough guys melting in the arms of these mothers. I’ll never forget the eyes of the mothers or the soldiers. I didn’t care if they were Catholic or not: everyone was receiving communion. We were at war, for God’s sake.”

Jordan turned to the soldiers.

“If you want visible evidence of why you’re fighting, look in the eyes of those mothers,” he said.

A soldier approached him afterward.

“Meeting those mothers, I guarantee you, father, that we’re going to get justice,” he said.

Jordan maintains relationships with rescue workers, firemen and cops from 9/11. They talk about his counsel, whether whispered or through a megaphone. He keeps in touch and shares curse words about the terrorists still. Ryan remains one of his closest confidantes. The lieutenant notes that he was training to run the 2001 marathon at the time of the attacks, but never got to the starting line while he worked the site as a day tour commander. Jordan called Ryan back to duty, though, in 2003 when he returned to the race in Staten Island. Before his starting-line mass, Jordan made Ryan, raised a Catholic in Our Lady of Czestochowa parish of Brooklyn, a Eucharistic minister.

“It was the last thing I expected to be doing at the starting line,” Ryan says. “I had to dust off my altar boy notes.”

Jordan reflects on his life’s course, charting a pivotal turn in the road back to his days at Siena College, just outside Albany in Loudonville, N.Y. He was a senior known to enjoy a rough-and-tumble approach with the rugby team and late nights out at houses and bars off campus back then. To run, as he did around a reservoir by St. Agnes High School in Rockville Center, he enjoyed jogging around the Schuyler Meadows Club’s golf course. Not a member, his presence was not always welcome on the private grounds.

“The groundskeeper never caught me,” he says.

Father Mychal Judge, then an assistant to the Siena president and popular for keeping a wide range of friends, both Celtic and eclectic, reached Jordan in a way that few had. Jordan grew up walking distance from Judge’s childhood home in Brooklyn, and knew Judge to be a nonconformist. Judge viewed Jordan as a potential Franciscan.

“What are you going to do for the rest of your life?” Judge asked.

“I’m thinking of becoming a lawyer,” Jordan said.

“Forget about becoming an unhappy lawyer,” Judge said. “Become a happy priest.”

Jordan demurred. Judge told him to give him three reasons why he shouldn’t become a priest. Jordan said, “I drink beer, I like to fight and I like women.”

“Regulate the first two and get rid of the third,” Judge said.

“I said, ‘See ya later, Father.’”

Further influence came from Father Rich O’Connor, though. In a political philosophy class in Oct. 1977, Jordan’s senior year, a student asked why God sends people to hell. O’Connor, who was a U.S. Army chaplain in World War II and the lone Catholic chaplain at the Nuremberg trial, surprised Jordan with his response.

“I never heard of God sending anyone to hell,” O’Connor said. “People send themselves.”

Jordan exercised free will and joined the priesthood. He was ordained a Franciscan on May 14, 1983, in Silver Spring, Md., and earned a doctorate ministry degree in Boston, performing his duties with the humility and human touch that Judge and O’Connor displayed before him. He has served in South America, the Bronx, Maryland, Manhattan and Brooklyn, running across a variety of landscapes all the while. He stepped out from behind the altar at each stop, and marathons became stages for him. He kept up with former boxing champion Floyd Patterson in one NYC Marathon and danced before a gospel choir on Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. during another. He found strength in his strides, but later pushed too far. At 44 years old, in 1999, he completed three marathons — Chicago, Marine Corps and Philadelphia — in 28 days. He traces the deterioration of his knee to that stretch. In 2011, Jordan tore his meniscus and underwent arthroscopic surgery. That was before his seven-hour Boston Marathon. There was no cartilage in the knee, and he received an injection of orthovisc, a lubricant to keep his knee somewhat mobile. It was bone on bone by then, one mile crunching into the next.

“I was proud then,” he says of his three marathons in 28 days. “Mr. Macho Man. Pride has ended up in frustration.”

Marathons tested endurance and patience along his path. There was the warm water handed out in Toronto and police allowing cars to cross at intersections during the race. There was also a pre-start issue in Dublin, Ireland. Jordan noticed that the course map displayed eight water stops. Jordan believed he needed more, and consulted the priests he was staying with beforehand. The priests identified three families who lived along the route and highlighted their houses in three separate neighborhoods. The local priests told him to stop at those places and introduce himself as an American priest. Jordan followed their advice. Each family gave him water, but then wanted a blessing of the house. He made the sign of the cross quickly, but each family requested that he go upstairs, too, and bless the entire house structure. He laughs at the delays now.

“I was trying to run a marathon!” he says.

The last time he crossed a finish line was in Boston, one month after the 2013 bombings. He helped coordinate a group of Boston firefighters to run the last four miles, starting in Cleveland Circle and dedicating each mile to one of the three victims from the bombings — Krystle Campbell, Martin Richard, Lingzi Lu — and subsequent shooting of police officer Sean Collier by one of the alleged bombers. Jordan, in robe and rope, carried an American flag as he dodged cars in traffic. They all raised glasses afterward.

“A few cars almost hit father,” Griffin says. “People joined in to celebrate.”

Times have slowed since he stopped running marathons. On a recent Friday night at St. Francis College in Brooklyn Heights, Jordan talks about last year’s NYC Marathon. He was stationed at Our Lady of Peace parish, just off Fourth Ave. in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn. He made his way up to the course, but couldn’t stand not running.

“I had to turn around and walk away,” he says.

Eileen O’Donnell, a director at PricewaterhouseCoopers in Manhattan, holds a unique position in Jordan’s network. They first met when she was a nurse clinician in a neurosurgeon’s office at Beth Israel Medical Center. He was doing missionary work in Ecuador at the time, and called the office to arrange an operation for an impoverished girl. O’Donnell took the call and relayed word to the doctor. The girl was successfully operated on, and Jordan kept in touch with O’Donnell. They later performed mission work together in El Salvador and ran the 2009 Boston Marathon side by side. She typically focused on her times in marathons, but experienced a lighter day with Jordan.

“He was high-fiving and saying hello to everyone,” she says. “Onlookers gave us Twizzlers and it was just about the most fun I ever had on a marathon route.”

Jordan later served as one of the priests at her wedding. She attended his summer masses on the porch of a mutual friend in Breezy Point, where her in-laws have a house not far from the 9/11 memorial that features 33 glass etchings honoring firefighters and cops. There is also another cross from the World Trade Center’s steel beams, standing by the sea. It is back from the road. Photographs of fallen firefighters and police officers look back at visitors. The poem “Footprints” is also emblazoned onto glass.

“Clergy, cops and firemen, we fight the battle between good and evil every day,” he says. “Anyone who fights burning fires has my utmost respect. My job is to console.”

Jordan has left his mark in the community, and autumn often brings two rites of remembrance to his feet. On September 11, 2014, he celebrated mass inside the St. Francis College Chapel. It was to remember the members of the college’s community who were lost in the attacks 13 years before. A cellist played Johann Sebastian Bach, and Jordan ceded the chapel floor to Brother Geoffrey Clement for a homily. Clement referenced Mahatma Gandhi and quoted W.B. Yeats’s poem “The Second Coming.” The Gospel was according to Luke, a message about choosing humility over vengeance.

“The dead are fine,” Clement said. “They have returned home to God. Rather it is us — the living — who are left to wonder, sometimes to suffer, and to carry on in an admittedly involuntarily reconfigured reality. As we consider today’s gospel reading it is a well-known injunction from our lord, perhaps the most difficult of his teachings: to turn the other cheek, to love one’s enemies and do good to those who hurt you.”

Jordan then acknowledged those lost.

“Sisters and brothers, please mention out loud the names of your loved ones that you lost in 9/11,” he said.

He commenced the roll call with “Mychal Judge.”

Three others in attendance named deceased friends. One man listed 14 comrades. Jordan added three more, then left others to finish. He wrapped up the service with hands raised high. Emotions tied his tongue for a moment before he concluded with a cleansing.

“I give you all general absolution for past or present sins,” he said. “In the name of the father, and of the son, and of the holy spirit. Amen. If you have serious sins on your soul, make sure you go to a priest within 48 hours. And make sure he has a hearing problem and can’t speak English. There are plenty of them in Brooklyn and Queens.”

His memorials stretched to a familiar Queens beach this week as the city readied for one more footrace. Jordan thought back to the 2012 NYC Marathon that was canceled due to the destruction left behind by Superstorm Sandy. It was supposed to be his last New York City run, but Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced the race was called off Friday evening, less than 48 hours before the marathoners were set to go off. Instead of running that Sunday, he trekked out to Breezy Point and joined Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio on the altar for mass at St. Thomas More Church. More than one hundred houses there — including his dad’s — were destroyed by fire; many more suffered flood damage and dozens of houses were swept off their foundations. He blessed firehouses with holy water and assisted those tending to food and clothing needs of locals seeking assistance. In the darkest corners, he served as a sounding board for suicidal residents.

“So many thought all was lost,” he says.

Healing has been slow to come. On Wednesday evening, he performed a service for two friends who lost their year-round homes on Breezy during Sandy. A light rain fell; the sunset colored the sky pink. Afterward, he talked about the beach’s pull on him, how his old training ground along the shore could serve as a finish line down the road.

“Put my ashes over Breezy Point Beach,” he says.

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