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Sister Mary Lea Schneider, OSF, at New York firehouse

Remembering Sept. 11, 2001

Throughout our 85th anniversary celebration we will share reflections on significant moments in history from members of the Stritch family.

This is an excerpt from a story that was published in the Winter 2002 edition of Stritch Magazine.

By Linda Steiner

When the World Trade Center and the Pentagon became targets of terrorists last Sept. 11, Stritch President Sister Mary Lea Schneider, OSF, and Betty Heinig, vice president for University Advancement, were on a plane.

Headed to Washington, D.C., early that morning to meet with members of the Wisconsin delegation, they were about 40 minutes outside the capital when they were diverted to Columbus, Ohio. Passengers were told there had been a hijacking, but no one knew the scope of the situation until they landed and fellow travelers on cell phones reacted in shock to word of the day’s horrors.

With no idea of when planes would be flying again, they rented a car – one of the last ones available at the Columbus airport – and offered a ride to three other people who needed to get back to Milwaukee: a businessman, a Marquette University professor and a homemaker from Kenosha.

“We could have filled that car up 10 times,” Sister Mary Lea said.

As she drove, the group listened to the radio and followed the story. But it wasn’t until they got home that evening and turned on their televisions that it really hit them.

“It’s one thing to hear people reporting an event on the radio and really another to have the visual impact,” Heinig said. “One thing Sister said immediately that I will never forget was ‘All of our lives have changed forever.’ “

So, when an alumni event planned for New York City came around in late October, the two felt a need to visit Ground Zero, along with Ann Woolweber, alumni director.

“I felt after all we had seen and heard that it was sacred space,” Sister Mary Lea said. “So many lives had been lost trying to save others, and so many fellow citizens may never be found. It was almost like a pilgrimage.”

Heinig sought closure on the loss of a close family friend who had died in Tower One.

A month and a half after the terrorist attack, they found the site was still smoldering. The area was behind a covered cyclone fence, dust was everywhere and many nearby small businesses remained closed and cordoned off. Workers' faces were covered with masks, and police and members of the National Guard were on patrol, disallowing photography of the actual Ground Zero area. An acrid smell was in the air, and people seemed numbed by a sense of disbelief.

“Clearly it’s not a tourist site; it’s not meant to become a tourist site,” Sister Mary Lea said.

The three women also visited the Church of St. Francis of Assisi on W. 31st Street, where Father Mychal Judge, OFM, chaplain for the fire station across the street had been based. Father Mike, as he was known, had lost his life when debris fell on him as he was administering the last rites to a fallen firefighter.

“This was a fellow Franciscan, and we needed to do something to recognize his life and his service and his sacrifice,” Sister Mary Lea said.

Cardinal Stritch University had made a donation to the church in his memory, but that day the president brought a simple bouquet of roses to the firehouse and placed it beside the picture bearing his kind smile. While there she connected with two young firefighters who had known Father Mike and who talked about his life and how much they would miss him.

“I just cried,” Sister Mary Lea said softly. “We were coming to the firehouse to console them and they ended up consoling us. They were so gracious. They were very welcoming and very hospitable. They were truly very Franciscan.”

At the firehouse, the Stritch contingent was surprised and pleased to find a banner bearing messages of support from students, staff and parents of Highland View Elementary School in Greendale, Wis. When they returned home, they contacted the principal, Theresa A. West, to tell her that the banner was displayed in the firehouse and that they had taken a picture of it to give to the school. They were further surprised and pleased to learn that West is a Stritch alumnus. She earned a master’s degree in reading in 1985.

“When we sent the banner, it was our hope that it would serve to bring comfort to the firefighters,” West said about the project, which included messages from Greendale police and fire fighters. “We never really expected to hear any more about it and did not expect any recognition for doing this. It was very thrilling to learn that the banner had exactly the impact we intended and that our school community made a connection with this fire station.”

West said the two-day experience of crafting messages, the idea of school district social worker Trisha Kilpin, had been very important and cathartic to the children.

“We wanted to help the children process their feelings about this tragedy by showing them that we can talk about feelings and caring and that, by offering comfort to others, it helps us to move on,” Kilpin said.