NEW YORK – The first midnight Mass at ground zero was celebrated as workers were still clearing debris from the World Trade Center and recovering bodies after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
The last was held Monday night, giving police, firefighters, recovery workers and victims' families a final chance to pray on Christmas Eve at the site, where intensifying construction is increasingly taking up open space.
"A lot of us felt sad this was the last official midnight Mass on-site, but at the same time, there was a sense of relief. This brought closure for us," the Rev. Brian Jordan said early Tuesday after the service ended. A chaplain who spent 10 months at ground zero after Sept. 11, he has since presided over every midnight Mass there.
About 75 people attended the Mass, he said. One police officer was there for the first time; he had recently returned from military service in Afghanistan and before that Iraq, Jordan said. A sanitation worker who was involved in the ground zero cleanup and has sung at each year's service rendered "God Bless America" and "O Holy Night."
At one point in the prayers, those gathered were asked to say the names of loved ones who died in the 2001 attacks. As many as 150 names were mentioned, said Jordan, who carried a chalice dedicated to the memory of the Rev. Mychal Judge, a fire chaplain killed while performing last rites on other victims' bodies outside the trade center.
"It was poignant, it was moving, it was uplifting," Jordan said.
More than 150 people attended the first Mass in 2001, while thousands of workers were still removing the debris from the fallen twin towers and searching for bodies. Over the years, the service became a spiritual salve for those who participated.
"I see the healing that it does," construction worker Frank Silecchia said. "It's like a pilgrimage."
The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which owns the site, has moved the service at times from one part of the property to another, depending on construction. Officials hope to open five office towers, a transit hub and a Sept. 11 memorial there within the next five years.
Jordan said he decided to make this service the last after Port Authority officials told him that heavier construction would make it impossible to continue the tradition in 2008. Port Authority spokesman Steve Coleman disputed that claim, saying Monday a spot would be found if Jordan wanted to hold future services at the site.
Jordan said it was fitting for this year's Mass to be the final one, noting that the most recent Sept. 11 commemoration may have marked the last time victims' families were allowed to descend into the pit at ground zero to remember their relatives.
"This was a holy night on sacred ground," he said. "As I told the people at the site, it's been an honor and a privilege to be able to say Mass here."