‘An Echo Of God’s Compassion’

‘An Echo Of God’s Compassion’



Retired Episcopal Bishop Mark Sisk, now of Jefferson, holds a cross appreciative firefighters crafted for him from the wreckage of the World Trade Center. (Ian Austin/AllOTSEGO.life)
Retired Episcopal Bishop Mark Sisk, now of Jefferson, holds a cross appreciative firefighters crafted for him from the wreckage of the World Trade Center. (Ian Austin/AllOTSEGO.life)

On 9/11, just a few short hours after they watched the World Trade Center towers collapse, the Right Rev. Mark Sisk, then the Episcopal bishop of New York, and his archdeacon Michael Kendall waited at Roosevelt Hospital.

“We were waiting to give comfort to the injured,” said Sisk, who with his wife, Karen, attended the 9/11 ecumenical community service at Cooperstown Methodist Church, marking the 13th anniversary of the national tragedy. “But nobody came. The longer that went on, the more ominous it seemed.”

Then a journalist arrived. “He asked us, ‘Where was God when the towers fell?’” Sisk recalled. “And Michael replied, ‘God is in that pile with the suffering and the dying.’ I thought that was the perfect answer.”

The next day, Bishop Sisk put on his clerical gear and drove to the WTC site with Kendall. “We didn’t know if St. Paul’s Chapel had survived,” he said. “We wanted the NYPD, the FDNY to know that they were in our prayers, that we supported them. We didn’t know what we’d encounter, but I felt like I had an opportunity and a duty to go down there.”

They were able to pass through all the barricades with ease, and an officer handed them face masks. “He told us ‘You’ll need these.’ It was 7 a.m., and there was still ash in the air. It was inches deep at our feet. The smell was acrid. I looked down, and there was an air canister with the plane’s flight number on it.”

Miraculously, St. Paul’s was still standing, with only one window broken. And that’s when they got to work. “We made St. Paul’s a respite place,” he said. “We served hot meals, gave massages, gave the firemen and police a place to rest.”
Karen – the Sisks retired a year ago to their long-time get-away home in Jefferson – also joined in helping at the church. “When I got there, I saw a fireman, in full gear, asleep on the pew,” she said. “They were setting up beds in the upper balcony.”

Overwhelmed by both the generosity and the chaos, she and another volunteer set about cleaning up the coffee station. “There was creamer spilled and teabags everywhere,” she said. “That we could deal with.”

Later that day, she helped on the food line, serving hamburgers and hot dogs. “Another volunteer came up to us and said, ‘The workers in the pit are hungry – we need 50 hot dogs with a little bit of ketchup and mustard, wrapped up in foil so we can throw them down.”

Olive Garden donated salads, and local markets sent fruit. “I looked at the fruit and it didn’t look right,” she said. “It was covered in this fine, powdery stuff – ash. There was still debris in the air, even a week later.”

Sisk also began to hear stories of heroism from his parishioners. “One man was coming down the stairs after the plane hit and he saw a woman sitting down, too tired to go on. He told her, ‘I’m not leaving you here, we’ll go down together,’ and helped her get all the way down. He wouldn’t leave her until they got away from the building, and they had just gotten clear before it fell.”

He also listened to stories of grief and guilt. “One man finished having breakfast with his friends and went to catch the elevator. His friend called him back, but he told him he’d catch up with him later. But that was the last elevator that made it down. His friends didn’t get out.”

And when his work was done, the firemen gave him a memento in thanks for all his work – a cross made from melted steel and glass from the towers. “Your own compassion for people is an echo of God’s compassion,” he said.