On Aug. 2, the Jesuits at America House celebrated the feast of Blessed Peter Faber, the first recruit and only priest among the early companions of St. Ignatius Loyola. A humble shepherd from Savoy, France, he was a skilled master of the Spiritual Exercises and was chosen to attend the ecumenical council at Trent, but he died in 1546. Despite his significant accomplishments, he remains unknown to most Catholics.
On the same day, we honored some other unknown heroes—New Yorkers. At 6:30 p.m. the evening before, as we were finishing dinner, the electrical power lines in the street below disintegrated because of the oppressive heat, cutting off power to most of our midtown Manhattan building. Two Jesuits who had just stepped into an elevator leapt back into the corridor as the doors were closing, sparing themselves a long confinement in the dark.
The heroes of the occasion, electrical workers from Consolidated Edison, soon arrived and quickly assessed the situation, noting the obstacles that stood in their way. In the sweltering humidity, they pried the tarred-over manhole covers from the street only to find a five-foot layer of long-accumulated and solidified sludge blocking access to the power cables.
An enormous vacuum truck was summoned to uncover the buried cables. The operator was upset because he would have to stay on after putting in a full day’s work performing similarly frustrating tasks elsewhere. But he wasted no time getting to work (and turned out to be a kind, gentle soul). The powerful vacuum lifted rocks, debris and dirt from the hole and sucked it into the truck—a fascinating process to watch.
During the many delays, hundreds of people walked by these workers, unaware of the valuable contribution they make to the city’s infrastructure. Countless people paraded by in the wee hours of morning: partygoers, trash collectors, scavengers and bottle-collectors, vendors, prostitutes, the well dressed and graveyard-shift workers.
At 4:30 a.m. a visiting Jesuit from another continent made his way down a completely dark stairwell in search of a computer, so he could check his e-mail.
All the while, the Con Ed men methodically worked without complaint. When the debris was cleared from the electrical pit, the men discovered that the sparking wires had disintegrated and were unusable. The work was dangerous, and all their efforts seemed to be for naught as they ran into more daunting difficulties.
Knowing that daylight and the workday were approaching, the men fashioned a temporary patch to restore power and minimize the disruption of service to our building.
As daylight broke, traffic increased considerably. The city resumed its usual bustle just as the men restored power to our building. Over 10 hours of expert and hazardous work during a humid summer’s night were coming to an end. Our superintendent, John Chisholm, unwearyingly remained throughout, providing guidance and hospitality to the workers. Staff members arriving at their work that day experienced no interruptions or inconvenience.
Life goes on as usual. We have become accustomed to our daily comforts, technologies and conveniences. Hardly a thought is given to those workers who seem to appear almost magically during emergencies and earn their day’s (and night’s) wages protecting the infrastructure of our cities and towns, which we too frequently take for granted. If we notice them at all on the street, it is too often because we are agitated that they are blocking or diverting traffic or just “standing around.” Otherwise, these forgotten and unnoticed heroes are long gone before we wake and begin our day.
At Mass that day, we celebrated the fruitful life of an obscure Jesuit priest, Peter Faber. We also remembered the dedicated workers upon whom we depend, but whom we seldom thank or even recognize.