Out of the ashes of 9/11, a call to serve Christ

When Paul Carris went to work on the 71st floor of One World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, he never could have imagined he’d save a life that morning and in the process plant the seeds of a religious vocation that would rise from the choking ash of that tragic day to give him new direction and renewed hope. 

The New Jersey engineer, who was only six weeks on the job with the Port Authority when terrorists attacked the World Trade Center, killing more than 2,700 people, was ordained a deacon this year due in large part to the events that unfolded on 9/11 and in the weeks and months that followed. To hear him tell it, the woman whose life he saved returned the favor in a less dramatic but no less meaningful way. 

To this day, Deacon Carris still doesn’t know what made him walk over to Judith Toppin, a stranger who was unable to leave the building on her own because of a bad heart and swollen legs, and promise her: “We are going to walk out of this building together.” Ninety minutes and 71 floors later they did just that, among the last — if not the last — to escape the building before it came crashing down. Toppin later wrote a reflection, “Angels Walk Among Us,” recounting their harrowing experience. When Deacon Carris read it, something inside shifted. 

“Judith’s description of me was of someone who made all of the right moves that day and did exactly what was needed to keep her calm, get her down the stairs, get her out of that building and walk in the right direction. Who would not want to be that person? I guess what struck me is that her description set a bar of perfection that I have never lived up to. I wished that I could make all the ‘right’ decisions and moves in my own life. Unrealistic — obviously — but for that few-hour period, I was able to accomplish that,” he told OSV. “But as Judith also pointed out — all the right moves were done by the grace of God that guided us. That is where the evaluation of my life began and brought me to realize that I needed God, not myself, to make the right moves in my own life.” 

Going from that realization to ordination was not an easy or direct route. Deacon Carris had to battle severe anger and rage in the wake of 9/11, which he did with the help of friends and priests who showed up in his life at just the right time. “God put certain people in the exact right places he needed to when I needed them,” he said, adding that it was an invitation to attend a Cursillo retreat that really made him take notice of a calling he hadn’t recognized until then. 

“I had been searching for something and didn’t know what it was. 9/11 made me aware that something was missing. Cursillo made me realize what I was missing was God,” he said, explaining that the Cursillo set him on a path of spiritual reading, prayer and, eventually, service. “That was something new. Once I hit the service side, that’s when I started talking about the diaconate.” 

Deacon Carris was ordained May 21 for the Archdiocese of Newark. He’ll be handling adult faith formation and other pastoral responsibilities at Corpus Christi Parish in Hasbrouck Heights, N.J., where he plans to use his unique life experience to give people “another way of looking at things, try to lift them up.” 

‘Fleetingness of life’  

Father Brian Graebe receives a blessing from New York Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan during his May 14 ordination at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Photo by Chris Sheridan of Catholic New York

For Father Brian Graebe, associate pastor of Blessed Kateri Parish in Lagrangeville, N.Y., and Sister Heather Marie Deneen, a novice at the Felician Sisters’ novitiate in Enfield, Conn., the influence of 9/11 on their vocations was not as clear-cut as it was for Deacon Carris, but it was there nonetheless, pushing them toward the priesthood and religious life with a sense of urgency that hadn’t been there before. 

Father Graebe was a philosophy student at New York University on the day of the attacks. He recalls coming outside his classroom to look up at the black smoke billowing from the towers. He went back to class and when he came back out both towers had already fallen. He walked to his apartment and tried to contact his family. He went to pray and tried to give blood. He remembers the acrid smell, the ash that made lower Manhattan look like a “twilight zone,” and the very real feeling that he could die that day. 

“What really stayed with me in the days and weeks that followed was that in every subway station, every park were all these pictures of missing people, hundreds of them. It put such a human face on the tragedy. You couldn’t avoid it, smiling faces staring back at you and the desperate hope that people had. You knew they were dead but no one wanted to take them down. It was haunting,” he said. “What that experience did was to sharpen my focus. It really puts priorities in order. I was so struck by the fleetingness of life.” 

Father Graebe didn’t suddenly decide to become a priest. In fact, he had wanted to be a priest for as long as he could remember. But the events “solidified” what he already knew about the priesthood. Nothing else he considered doing, he said, met the “magnitude of that event as much as the priesthood does, impressing upon souls their own mortality, their own need for grace, the need that people have for hope, the desire of the human heart to believe and to know that there’s something beyond the chaos and tragedy of this life.” 

After graduating from NYU, he taught at St. Rose High School in Belmar, N.J., which was “good and rewarding,” he said. So good that his plan to teach for one year turned into four years, and he realized that if he didn’t make a move, four years could turn into 40. 

“I think my experience of 9/11 was a large impetus in that equation. I thought, let’s not linger here. Life is so short,” said Father Graebe, who studied at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Dunwoodie, N.Y., and was ordained this spring. His experience has been beyond what he could have anticipated, he said. 

“I feel like I am even more myself, that in a way I have just begun to live.”

Serving as a catalyst  

Sister Heather was studying in Japan when 9/11 unfolded. She didn’t even know it had happened until a day later, but what she saw and what played out in months and years to come changed her outlook, her career plans and her dreams. 

She had always hoped to work in the foreign service. In the aftermath of 9/11, however, she began to question whether she could serve in such a capacity when she felt the policies of her country were in conflict with the beliefs of her faith. 

“I was finding I would have to uphold policies I could not agree with as a Catholic. I gave it to God,” she said, explaining that she took the foreign service test and decided that the outcome would be the sign she needed. She failed the test. 

“At that point, increasingly I felt drawn to a life of prayer and service. I was spending more time in church and attending young adult activities,” she said. “After seeing my initial dream disappear, I was kind of lost. But God had put all those things in my life to lead me to a religious vocation.” 

In 2006 she began discernment in earnest and eventually decided on the Felician Sisters because the community is “Eucharist-centered with a good balance of prayer and apostolic life.” She became a candidate in 2008 and entered as a postulant in 2009. She is in her second year of the novitiate. 

“9/11 was the catalyst that helped me realize that St. Paul calls us all to be ambassadors for Christ,” Sister Heather said. “My being an ambassador for the United States and an ambassador for Christ just didn’t go together.” 

Mary DeTurris Poust writes from New York. Her latest book isThe Essential Guide to Catholic Prayer and the Mass(Alpha, $16.95).