On sacred (under) ground: blessing a New York subway tunnel

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At 7 on Monday morning, a priest in black robes approached a portal on Second Avenue that dropped down into an underground cavern.

Accompanied by about 10 men in safety vests and hard hats, the priest donned similar gear and stepped into a steel mesh cage. As the cage was lowered into the hole, the priest was sweating; he clutched his prayer book to his chest.

He stepped out of the cage onto the wet, gritty dirt and looked at the cavern’s stone walls. A tractor banged loudly at one wall. Several men were boring holes in the rock with heavy drills.

Then the muddy workers stopped drilling and hacking, and they gathered around the priest. Glaring work lights shined on the stone walls, and some daylight streamed down the shaft.

The priest, the Rev. Kazimierz Kowalski of the Roman Catholic Church of Our Lady of Good Counsel on East 90th Street in Manhattan, stepped over rocks into a small clearing away from the shaft to be clear of falling objects. And there he began to pray, blessing the underground cavity where the Second Avenue subway tunnel is taking shape.

“The work we continue today should enliven our faith and make us grateful,” Father Kowalski began. “If the Lord does not build a house, in vain do its builders labor.”

A year into the construction of this section of the Second Avenue tunnel, the cavern has now been “belled out” — excavated enough to accommodate large machines — and prompting the sandhogs, the construction workers who dig beneath the city, to seek divine sanction for their risky work.

“We bring in a priest for each phase of a project, to offer God’s blessing to the project, and also for the safety of our men,” said John C. Donohue, known as Chickie.

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