September 3, 2021

Never forget: Remembering 9/11

Singing at the funeral Masses of 9/11 victims gave my voice a vocation

By Ann Margaret Lewis

While many images come to mind for 9/11, the most poignant for me was a funeral Mass, one of many I’d sung at the parish of St. Margaret of Cortona in the Bronx. As the casket was led into the church surrounded by firefighters as pall bearers, the fallen man’s twin toddler boys followed, carrying his battered helmet that had been found at ground zero.

I was singing for the funeral Mass from above in the choir loft, and I had to look away. If I didn’t, I’d cry, and crying is not conducive to singing. But I felt desolate, aching for those little boys who would grow up without a father.

It wasn’t the first funeral Mass I’d sung after 9/11, nor certainly the last. One could say I found my vocation as a singer through the days that followed the attack on the twin towers.

By the time of the attacks, I’d lived in New York City for eight years. A native of Michigan, I’d relocated there in 1993 to take what I believed was my dream job of working at DC Comics. I also discovered not long after that that I could sing.

Of course, having made this discovery, I knew I had to cultivate the gift that God had given me. But I was at a loss as to how to use it since most singers my age would have already begun a career singing for operas and theater companies. Nevertheless, I found a good voice teacher in Manhattan and managed to pay for lessons.

But voice wasn’t my primary focus. I am, and always will be, a writer. In the end, I left the position at DC Comics to work in Internet content and website development, taking positions at several companies in lower Manhattan, the last of which I left two weeks prior to 9/11.

That job was in a building on Trinity Place, only a block away from the South Tower of the World Trade Center. I would have taken the subway to that very station and would have been in the building at 9 that morning had I not been laid off like so many of my peers in the web industry implosion that occurred that year.

But, as it was, that morning I was at a New York state-required appointment at the unemployment office in the South Bronx when the first plane struck the North Tower. I ended up stranded there as all forms of public transportation were suspended. After wandering through the streets of stunned people listening to the news on their boomboxes and others watching the images of the burning buildings on TVs in the open doors of bars and laundromats, I found an independent cab driver wiling to drive me home to my apartment in the North Bronx.

With all the freeways being closed to traffic, he had to take the back streets, making it about a 45-minute drive through heavy traffic. I called my mother during that long ride home as well as my sister who lived in New Jersey, and my husband who was working in Manhattan at 36th street by Macy’s. When I reached my apartment, I sat in front of my TV like many Americans while I cried and prayed my rosary. My husband didn’t get home until late, for he had to wait for the subways to start running again.

While the events of the actual day were traumatic, the days and weeks that followed were even more arduous, causing me to focus on my faith and my secondary gift of voice. A year or two before this, I’d begun serving as a cantor for my parish to gain some singing experience. After the attack, I received a call from our parish organist, asking if I would be free to sing evening Masses. They were adding these Masses to the schedule every night for people to come in and pray for the victims and for those working at ground zero.

Of course, I agreed. What I didn’t realize was how many members of my parish were emergency personnel, though being an Irish parish, it made sense.

While I switched off evenings with another cantor, every other night I would sing Mass for a congregation made up mostly of firefighters and police officers who were returning from ground zero, all covered in dust. Since I sang at the front of the church, I’d often see them weeping during Mass, traumatized by what they’d seen or mourning those they’d lost.

By the time it came to sing at the funeral Mass of the firefighter with the toddler twins, several months had passed, and I’d sung at more Masses than I could count. One night, I was almost unable to sing because I fought tears for those who were crying in the pews.

I therefore asked my priest, Father Lee, if I could sing these Masses from the choir loft at the rear of the church. An immigrant from County Cork in Ireland, his eyes held a sad twinkle as he told me that while he’d normally say yes, he said not this time. “They need to know you’re there,” he said. “You need to stay up front and be there for them.”

I’m sure he knew that what he was asking me to do was difficult. He had a way of testing me that way. But it was with his words that I realized why I had my voice. My voice was truly meant for them and for God.

Today, because of those Masses after 9/11, I’ve made singing for the Church the focus of my vocal work. While I’ve had the honor of singing in the chorus of the Indianapolis Opera, my greatest joy has been offering my voice at the parishes of Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary in Indianapolis, Holy Name of Jesus in Beech Grove, and St. Mary and the Cathedral of SS. Peter and Paul, both in Indianapolis.

I no longer worry that my voice isn’t used for something “grander” as my voice teachers might have liked. I know it’s being used where God and his people need it, and there’s nothing better than that.
 

(Ann Margaret Lewis is executive assistant in the archdiocesan Office of Communications and the author of several books. E-mail her at alewis@archindy.org.)​ †

 

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