A life saved, a life changed: one deacon's story

With ordination season now in full swing, some great vocation stories are emerging — and this one, from Newark, is just one of them.


Under the majestic gothic stone arches of a Newark cathedral on Saturday, a man from Hasbrouck Heights hugged a woman from Brooklyn.

She thanked him again for saving her from death at the World Trade Center during the 9/11 attacks.

He shook his head.

“You saved me,” he said.

Sometimes a chance encounter can change your life. Sometime it changes someone else’s.

Carris led a stricken Toppin down 71 flights of stairs to safety in the World Trade Center’s north tower during the 9/11 attacks. On Sept. 11, 2001, as smoke billowed from the World Trade Center’s north tower, Paul Carris of Hasbrouck Heights rose from his desk on the 71st floor and tapped a colleague, Judith Toppin, on the shoulder. The two worked for the Port Authority — he as a transit engineer, she as a manager of aviation projects.

But they had never met — had never even laid eyes on each other.

On that fateful morning, Carris noticed Toppin sitting, helpless. Stricken with a debilitating lung disease and edema that left her legs swollen, Toppin could barely walk more than a few feet without feeling exhausted.

“I thought I might die,” she recalled. “I remember hoping that it wouldn’t be painful.”

Carris took her hand and promised to lead her to safety — down 71 flights of stairs. “We’re going to walk out of this building together,” Toppin remembers him telling her.

And they did. Toppin and Carris were among the last to escape. Just before ducking into a nearby building, Carris says, he remembers looking back and seeing the north tower start to buckle and collapse. That’s how close they came to dying.

Almost 10 years later, Carris says, he tapped into the trauma of that ifesaving experience to “save my own life” — and became a Roman Catholic deacon. He was ordained Saturday at the Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Newark with 34 other men, including a retired FBI agent, an auto mechanic, a pediatrician, a letter carrier and a martial arts instructor.

Sunday he gave his first sermon at his home parish, Corpus Christi in Hasbrouck Heights.

“All of us need to know more about our destination and purpose of living,” Carris told about 300 worshipers. “But we need to understand a more basic question: Who am I? To this question, Jesus answers, I am the light. It is through Jesus that we understand our own identity,”

The congregation applauded. Later, as the Mass ended, Carris’ pastor, Monsignor Lewis Papera, turned to Carris and said, “We were inspired that you won a victory over darkness. May that be an inspiration to all of us as we confront the little 9/11s in our own lives.”

The congregation applauded again.

The 9/11 attacks clearly changed America. There are, of course, the big changes — the soldiers sent overseas, the longer lines at airport checkpoints, the signs in buses telling us to “say something if we see something.”

But there are subtle changes, too — the stories of how 9/11 altered the quiet corners of our lives.

Paul Carris is one of those stories. Or as Toppin describes it: “I think he needed something like that to happen in order for him to fully realize what he is supposed to be to doing on this earth.”

Read the rest. As I’ve mentioned on more than one occasion, 9/11 was a defining event in my own life, and propelled me forward in my own vocation. It’s one of the ongoing mysteries of ministry: you never know how God will call you — or how He will use you once you’ve been called.

Congratulations to Deacon Carris and all the new deacons in Newark.  Ad multos annos!

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5 responses to “A life saved, a life changed: one deacon's story”

  1. I am disappointed that article states that Carris entered a program to become a Catholic “lay deacon”.

    May his ministry be blessed and may all who are touched by him share in that blessing.

  2. Dear Deacon Greg,

    Thank you for this wonderful post. I am honored to be a friend and classmate of Paul, and all my brother classmates -now DEACONS!

    It has been an amazing journey…

    God bless you and all the good deacons who serve our Mother Church!

  3. Talk about changed lives! I work in a program directly related to anti-terrorist measures and my daughter works for TSA at very busy airport. Both our livelihoods are derived from 9/11. I don’t if this is right or wrong, but it is certainly a reality. (And am also in a deacon formation program).

    God bless our deacons and help them in their ministries.

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