Anyone who lived through 9/11 has a lasting image that sticks in his mind. For Msgr. John E. Delendick, that image had to do with a fellow priest who was killed that day in 2001.
Msgr. Delendick died November 23, 2023, Thanksgiving Day, at the age of 74, after a long battle with 9/11-related cancer, due to his time at Ground Zero responding as a New York City Fire Department chaplain.
The priest first heard the news that a plane had flown into one of the twin towers of the World Trade Center after celebrating Mass at his parish, St. Michael’s in the Sunset Park section of Brooklyn, New York. As an FDNY chaplain for five years, he immediately called the command center to let them know of his availability. He tried to drive into lower Manhattan, but his vehicle could only get so far. He had to walk through the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel the remainder of the way.
Along the way, he ran into colleagues, including a Fire Department official who would soon lose his life in the collapse of one of the twin towers.
Witnessing people jumping from high up in the towers – people who had nowhere to go to escape the flames and intense heat and probably realized that there was no way they could be rescued – Msgr. Delendick administered general absolution to all involved. Later, a policeman approached him for confession, and the priest told him, “This is an act of war, isn’t it? I’m granting general absolution.”
At some point someone handed Msgr. Delendick the fire helmet of Fr. Mychal Judge, the Franciscan friar and fellow fire department chaplain who was the first documented casualty on 9/11. Fr. Judge had been struck by debris while anointing a fallen firefighter.
It was the image that would stick with Msgr. Delendick for the rest of his life.
Layer of sadness
According to the Brooklyn Tablet, the newspaper of the Diocese of Brooklyn, the hardest thing for Delendick was people asking him if he had seen their friends, fathers, brothers and sons — firefighters and first-responders — and not knowing how to respond. It wasn’t until after returning from Ground Zero – at 2 in the morning on September 12 – that Delendick would learn about friends and acquaintances who had died. Some believed that Delendick himself perished, and he later learned that a convent of cloistered nuns in Brooklyn had prayed for his soul all afternoon in front of the Blessed Sacrament and that their own chaplain had said edifying things about him in his homily at Mass the next morning.
Delendick recalled in a 2017 interview that he thanked the nuns for their prayers, that they had helped him to recover, and told the priest to put the homily in his pocket as he might need to use it eventually.
But Delendick himself would go on to offer funeral Masses for many of the 343 New York City firefighters who died on 9/11; assist at the massive cleanup at Ground Zero, where bodies were being recovered; and offer comfort and pastoral care to the traumatized. He said that while many survivors were affected by a “layer of anger,” he himself had taken on a “layer of sadness” and was given to outbursts of weeping.
Those he ministered to included the first responders who developed respiratory diseases due to the horrid aerosol mix they inhaled while working at the Ground Zero “pile.” Some of those eventually died of cancers and other diseases.
Msgr. Delendick himself ended up with pancreatic cancer.
Upon the priest’s death, New York Fire Commissioner Laura Kavanagh issued a statement saying, “Msgr. Delendick was a spiritual constant and staple in our department, in good times and in bad. Immediately after the immeasurable losses of September 11, he stepped up to provide guidance and comfort to FDNY members and other first responders. In his decades-long career as a chaplain with the FDNY, he was a pillar at department funerals, graduations, promotions, and memorials. He was always quick with a joke and a kind word and had a way of making everyone feel special. He was beloved, and we are heartbroken over his passing.”
Brooklyn Bishop Robert Brennan was the main celebrant of a Mass of Christian Burial December 1 at the Co-Cathedral of St. Joseph. The funeral included the FDNY Color Guard with full department honors and was attended by hundreds of firefighters, as well as Commissioner Kavanagh. Next September, a plaque honoring Msgr. Delendick will be added to the Wall of Remembrance at its headquarters.