Tuesday, September 11, 2012

"To face whatever lies before us...": New York City disasters and the prayers of young mothers

I was one of the many who witnessed the crashing of the plane into the
World Trade Center's South Tower on the morning of September 11, 2001
after turning on the television to see reports of the first crash

I was several months away from the birth of my third child - a precious daughter - on the morning of September 11, 2001. Taking a few quiet minutes before my sleeping children woke up, I was doing some inspirational reading with a book called In Conversation with God. The day's meditation read:
"It is in prayer that we learn the mystery of Christ and the wisdom of the Cross. In prayer we perceive, in all their dimensions, the real needs of our brothers and sisters throughout the world; in prayer we find the strength to face whatever lies before us..." - from a homily by Pope John Paul II, Jan. 13, 1981
The peace of my quiet morning did not last long. Soon I learned the true wisdom of those words and found out the reality of that day's trials.

"...whatever lies before us"... 

I learned the "real needs of [my] brothers and sisters throughout the world" with shocking clarity when I got a call from my Mom.

"Turn on the T.V.," she said. "A plane has crashed into the World Trade Center."


The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire
occurred in the Asch Building
(now the Brown Building)
at 23-29 Washington Place, NYC
It was only last week as I was thinking about another event in New York City's history that I made an interesting connection.

Ninety years before the World Trade Center disaster - on March 25, 1911 - another expectant mother must have been shocked to learn of a horrible tragedy that had just occurred. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire took the lives of 146 garment workers - most of them young immigrant women ages 16 to 23. It would rank as the second deadliest disaster in New York City's history (behind the burning of a passenger steamship in 1904) - that is, until the destruction of the World Trade Center eclipsed them both ninety years later.

Like the World Trade Center tragedy, the Triangle Shirtwaist fire was a catalyst that brought enormous change. In this case, the movement for worker safety and social justice was finally brought to the forefront in New York and throughout the country.

A quick bit of research led me to a startling realization: at the time of the disaster, this young mother and her family had lived only six short blocks away from the Triangle Shirtwaist factory.

The woman? My great-grandmother, Ilona Ujlaky. A new immigrant to America who had arrived only two years earlier. Knowing her, she had said many prayers since she had arrived in the crazy and wonderful world of New York City. More than likely she prayed for these victims and their families, and the struggles of the city in which she and her husband were beginning their new life.

The child she was expecting? Her third. A baby girl. My grandmother.

In 1911 my great-grandmother and her family (she is pictured here c.1913)
lived at 415 East Fifth Street on the Lower East Side,
only about six blocks from the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.

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