2004. 2007. Sometime in the 1990s? These are among the answers I have received in recent years from freshmen and sophomores in a course I teach on American society when I ask them for the year the 9/11 attacks took place. To be fair, some do know the right answer, but it is a bracing, depressing fact that so many do not, and there is little reason to doubt the numbers will continue to dwindle.
So many forces are working to feed this basic historical ignorance about the most important event in American history, of at least the past quarter-century, that it may be impossible to do much to reverse it.
That pessimistic thought notwithstanding, every September, as a regrettably modest contribution to the effort of keeping the memory present in the American consciousness, I write something about that dreadful day and what it means to this country. This year, I give you a few words about a hero of that day and many days afterward, a man — it is to the shame of this entire society to note it — whose name none of my students know, a man I knew as Father Fonzie.
Who Is Father Fonzie?
This February, it will be seven years since the passing of Father Alphonse Mascherino, the founder and, for its first dozen years, the chaplain of the Flight 93 Thunder on the Mountain Memorial Chapel in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. At his death, he was just a few months shy of his 70th birthday. Far too early, say I.
I am sure what he would have said in response: “Well, but not so early as Todd Beamer, or Tom Burnett, or Jeremy Glick, or Mark Bingham, or just about anybody else aboard United Flight 93 on Sept. 11, 2001.” Could he speak to us now from beyond the grave, he might well add something along the following lines, which he spoke at the chapel a decade or so ago on another Sept. 11:
From the very start, the response of America was an appeal to God. … That demonstration of faith is what this chapel honors, and the faith of the 40 heroes, after they found out they were part of this plot to destroy the United States, in one half-hour … 40 strangers got together and decided they were going to do something about it, and they did. They said the Lord’s Prayer, and they prayed the 23rd Psalm, and they didn’t have time to say to each other ‘What church do you go to?’ or ‘What religion are you?’ but they prayed for courage and strength and wisdom, and they rose up against the terrorists, and four minutes later, the plane crashed in Shanksville. But in four minutes, 40 strangers changed the history of the world forever. What could 325 million Americans do, and we have the rest of our lives to do it?
On Sept. 11, 2001, Father Fonzie was an unassigned Catholic priest in the Somerset, Pennsylvania, area. When United Flight 93 struck ground there in his backyard, and when it became known what had taken place on the plane in its last 30 minutes in the air, he was instantly seized by the towering heroism of the passengers who thwarted the intentions of the terrorist hijackers, and he wanted to make a contribution to ensure the memory of these heroes would never be extinguished.
Father Fonzie’s Inspiration to Honor the Flight 93 Patriots
Within the first several days of the crash, as he drove between Somerset and Shanksville, Fonzie noticed a “for sale” sign in front of an old church, just a few miles from the crash site. Its owner was using the old church to store grain. In an instant, he had the idea to turn it into a shrine to the American patriots on Flight 93 who had prevented the terrorist effort to fly the plane to Washington, D.C., for another strike against our nation.
He excitedly called the realtor. It was already sold. Undeterred, Father Fonzie looked around the area for other options but found none. A few agonizing days passed, and he wondered if the inspiration was to come to naught. Then he got a call telling him the buyers had backed out, and he was at the top of the list of those interested.
He had all of $300 to his name at the time. He asked the realtor if a $100 payment would be enough to hold the property for him until he could dig up more money. Amazingly, the response was affirmative.
On Christmas Day in 2001, in another moment of inspiration while spending time with his dying mother, he produced an outline of the finished chapel, which was at that time little more than an abandoned building in dire need of major repairs he had no money to make. He managed to come up with enough to secure a mortgage for the property by the kindness of a number of friends and by selling essentially everything he owned.
By August 2002, though, he was completely out of resources, and the chapel was still little more than an abandoned, dilapidated hovel. Then he got another call, this one from the owner of 84 Lumber, Maggie Hardy. She had heard what he was planning to do and wanted to see the chapel.
Within minutes after arriving at the old building, she told him: “I think what you want to do is significant, and you need to have it ready to go by the first anniversary. I know you have no money. So, I will do this for you.” She donated nearly $25,000 in materials plus the labor to do the repairs, and the chapel was rebuilt and designed according to the plan Mascherino had drawn up on Christmas Day, just in time for the first commemoration.
40 Stars for the 40 Angel Patriots of 9/11
For more than a decade from that date, Father Fonzie worked tirelessly at the chapel. He organized heartfelt, moving commemorations of the heroic deed of Flight 93 every year on Sept. 11, bringing together gatherings that always overflowed the doors of the little chapel. He always included members of the families of those who had died on Flight 93. Those family members universally adored him.
He kept the chapel in good repair solely through donations, and spent basically every waking hour there for much of that decade, taking time to eat and sleep here and there, but vigilant in the duty of the task he felt he had been assigned by a power beyond him. This was the vision that guided him, which he expressed to another congregation at the chapel on another Sept. 11:
I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder. ‘Thunder on the Mountain’ is the message of Flight 93. … As the plane crashed in the fields of Shanksville, it exploded and could be heard all across the hills, and shook the houses, and people heard it for miles around. That’s how powerful is the message of Flight 93. Once we understand it, it will explode upon our hearts. Never surrender. Never surrender. On Sept. 11, 2001, the old world passed away forever and can never be restored the way it was. The old heavens and the old earth passed away and behold, God said, ‘I create all things anew, and this time I give you 40 new stars — 40 stars to guide you in the darkness of terror.’
As he said those words, he pointed above his head, to the painting on the wall and ceiling over the altar. It depicts a vista of red-tinged mountains, blue sky, wind-swept clouds, and a majestic bald eagle with wings spread dominating the center of the field. Scattered in the sky at the sides of the eagle are 40 stars, representing the heroic passengers on Flight 93, the Angel Patriots of 9/11.