Through the lens of history, Pacelli prayer service honors 9/11

Published 11:38 am Monday, September 11, 2023

By themselves, each one of the over 2,000 American flags placed on the green outside of Pacelli Catholic Schools is a small thing. No more than a foot and a half high, they take up very little individual space.

But together each one carries the weight of a human life lost in one of American history’s darkest days — the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

In total, 2,977 people lost their lives in the attacks on the World Trade Center, Pentagon and Flight 93, which crashed well before its intended target — the Capitol — thanks to passengers onboard the flight who fought back. On Monday morning, the school held a prayer service in memory of the day, honoring those lost in the tragedy.

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“I can vividly remember where I was and what I was doing,” said Principal Paula Ziems during Monday’s service. “I stood in shock as I watched the second plane fly intentionally into the second building of the World Trade Center.”

Ziems is like many who still look back at the day 22 years ago. The act irrevocably changed the face of New York City and America forever, something that is remembered each year at services like Pacelli’s, which took place across the United States.

Through the songs sung, prayers spoken and the Color Guard’s 21-gun salute, the heft of the multitude of flags was felt by all those in attendance.

“The weight of today is evident,” said Nicholas McGrath, chair of the Social Studies Department at the school, making note of the nearly 3,000 flags standing before people. “It is obvious that this is important.”

But as people remembered the event and its lasting impact over 20 years later, McGrath said that there is a new angle to the day, which he sees as a necessity as students are becoming separated by year and the first-hand experience of the day.

“Especially with kids becoming younger and younger and further removed from an event like this, you have to refresh your perspective every year,” he said.

As the lens of history is increasingly used to lock back on 9/11, teachers like McGrath rely on these new approaches to ensure the day and those following immediately in its aftermath are never forgotten.

It was why McGrath took a mission-focused approach to the service this year, invoking the need of Americans to be involved in their country.

“It’s that idea that we have a job to do,” McGrath said. “Americans are exceptional in every way — it’s in service to thy neighbor. In service of our country. For the students, 9/11 means nothing to them without that mission piece.”

Admitting if felt odd on a day of tragedy, McGrath said he was giddy at the prospect of coming to school early Monday morning. Beneath a bright sunny day, it was the perfect environment to connect students to the impact still felt from the first plane striking the WTC.

It’s a chance to leave the students with the urge to do their part and make their own impact.

“All of these things become so different, so meaningful,” McGrath said. “The whole thing is, for them, it draws them in and hopefully they leave today with a little bit of sense of that calling and purpose.”

He also hopes the students leave having come away with two things.

“A better context of the world they live in and hopefully come to understand the world they live in a little better,” McGrath said. “And then, that mission and purpose. What does this really mean? In the context of 9/11 how do I fit in with American history?”