New York, N.Y. – Going to my radio show studio in the dull light of morning, I often pass St. Francis of Assisi Church on West 31st Street, a half block from my office above Penn Station.
Only recently feeling the tide of gentrification lifting adjacent, hipper neighborhoods, the church floats in what was the notorious ‘Tenderloin’ district -- a sea of hookers, pimps, alkies and bruisers on the near West Side in midtown Manhattan.
Since the Disneyfication of nearby Times Square, for the last 25 years the neighborhood has gone legitimately commercial, and is now mostly a collection of small businesses in big buildings on a street that is mostly always in shadow.
On the uptown side the main church building has a modest steeple that rises about waist-high to the big buildings around it. The sanctuary’s low profile is crowded into that gritty block of sooty high rises in the shadow of Madison Square Garden.
In that shade, the church has shined doing the Lord’s work since the middle of the 19th Century.
Run by the Franciscan Order, for the last 169 years it has served “as a focal point for untold numbers of people seeking a place of compassion, inspiration, comfort, nourishment and education.”
It is an activist, hands-on church that makes me proud of my Puerto Rican father’s Catholic faith.
In this 21st century, the church’s renown comes from Father Mychal Judge who was Chaplin of the Fire Department of New York when the planes hit the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.
Father Mychal rushed to the scene.
Administering to the grievous needs of the dead and dying, the padre refused to leave. When the towers collapsed around him and his flock, he became New York’s most beloved candidate for eventual sainthood.
I revere his memory and think of him every morning when I pass that church feeling small next to the achievements of his magnificent heart.
But driving past the church last Tuesday, September 11th I had my only beef with the legendary Father Mychal.
All the fire trucks stopping by this no-joke sacred shrine stopped traffic on W. 31st street.
I was racing ironically to interview ex-mayor Rudy Giuliani, the very man who asked Father Mychal at Ground Zero to pray for the victims as the great buildings shook, and began their world-shattering implosion.
Late to that interview, I abandoned my car at Sixth Avenue and ran to the studio.
What caught my eye as I raced past the firefighters, priests and dignitaries milling in front of St. Francis of Assisi was the double line of men stretching almost all the way to 7th Avenue.
They were all waiting in line for the dignitaries gathered in front to leave for the ceremonies at Ground Zero so they could continue their pursuit of the church’s traditional free breakfast.
They were hundreds of them.
There were even more this Thursday morning. It was shocking to see 300 to 400 men waiting patiently in line for breakfast.
In that moment Manhattan seemed a war-ravaged Third World country.
What freaked me out was that only about a third of that long snaking line was classic worn-out, drunk, beat up Bowery-Bum types.
The rest were shockingly diverse, whites, Latinos, Asians, blacks and more whites.
They are blessed to have the compassion of the fathers and staff of St. Francis of Assisi. Still, that is a lot of hungry diverse dudes.
Geraldo Rivera currently serves as a roaming correspondent-at-large for Fox News Channel. He joined the network in 2001 as a war correspondent.