Sandy O’Connor Carey was widowed at only 30 years old.
Like many of Hoboken’s young professionals, she was just getting used to her adult life when the terrorist attacks occurred across the river on Sept. 11, 2001.
O’Connor Carey was already a mother, but other young widows in the mile-square city had yet to start families when they lost their fiancés or husbands.
Monica Ianelli lost her fiancé Joseph a year before they were to marry. Monica took Ianelli’s last name following the attacks.
Joseph Ianelli’s car stayed parked on Washington Street for days after the attacks, with a missing poster taped to the windshield and a note asking parking officials to please leave the car alone.
‘I remember stories about how somebody’s mail would just [pile up].’ – Rev. Laurie Wurm
Some of Hoboken’s young widows have since remarried or begun dating, but they haven’t forgotten about the path their lives were on before the attacks. For several years, they met in a support group run by a local minister, Rev. Laurie Wurm.
Hoboken lost 57 residents on Sept. 11, 2001; the most of any ZIP code in the nation. See page 3 for a related story.
Looking for support
In the months after the attacks, the young widows and family members of victims formed a support group at All Saints Episcopal Church. It began after Wurm spoke to O’Connor Carey.
“We held a service in late October or early November of 2001,” said Wurm last week. “At the conclusion of the service I asked Sandra [O’Connor Carey] what she needed…she said she needed people who were sharing her experience.”
Wurm said that in the short time following Sept. 11, it was difficult to discern who was missing.
“I remember stories about how somebody’s mail would just [pile] up, or you would hear somebody’s dog crying because they hadn’t been let out,” Wurm said. “Potentially more back then than now, Hoboken was a city of very young professionals, often living on their own. People were just unclear about who had been missing, and it took months to figure out who died.”
In order to organize the group, O’Connor Carey, her 2-year-old daughter, and Wurm walked up and down Washington Street asking for people who lost partners or family members on Sept. 11 to join them in a meeting at the church.
Wurm said the group eventually had approximately 50 people, including some widowers.
‘Widows aren’t supposed to be 20, 30 something years old’
The group members would say their names, light a candle on behalf of their missing family member, and ask an open ended question to begin dialogue.
“All Saints become the crossroads where we all found each other,” said O’Connor Carey, who has since remarried, last week. “It was an important tool.”
O’Connor Carey added that a vivid memory of the group was how young everyone was as a widow.
“Widows aren’t supposed be 20, 30 something years old,” she said. “The real gift that group offered was that when you were there, it almost felt like that was the only normal place. Everything else in life was so turned upside down. We had that common denominator. You could actually be more relaxed, unguarded, and other people understood what you were going through.”
In addition to meeting and helping at other local community organizations, O’Connor Carey said the group provided an outlet for the members to feel comfortable doing normal, everyday things.
“It felt like the only place you could laugh,” O’Connor Carey said. “Nothing about the situation was funny, but we felt safe around each other. We bonded so quickly.”
Wurm said she thought of the members of the group as a sort of minorities in society.
“If you had someone die tragically in your life, the chances are that the death would be very private,” Wurm said. “What was happening with the members of the support group was that their loss wasn’t just their loss, it was a national loss and international news. Their experience was very public.”
Wurm said that some members said the group was the only thing that kept them sane through the mourning process.
“At 32, the people in the group were even a few years younger than me,” Wurm said. “We have these people who have been widowed in their late 20s. They were very young, very bright, and it was a few months before they had everything to look forward to.”
Ianelli said “it’s hard to put into words” how much the group helped her.
“I really honestly can’t say enough about the support group and what the people gave to me there,” Ianelli said. “They gave me life, and hope, and a sense of gratitude.”
Lifelong friends, even spouses
Orr-O’Keefe said that a core group from that time still remains close friends today.
“We were together as we coped with our lowest lows, and, as years passed, we have also shared happy moments, as well – as many group members celebrated milestones, remarried, and had children,” she said.
Orr-O’Keefe married a fellow group member, Joe O’Keefe, and they now have two children.
“When it came to our wedding, and afterwards the Christenings of our children, there was no other church where we’d rather be,” she said. “And of course our fellow group members were essential guests at our wedding. Laurie Wurm and [Rev.] Robert Griner married us, and Laurie baptized our son.”
O’Connor Carey also met her new husband, John Carey, after her involvement through Sept. 11 events in Hoboken.
“John’s involved with the [Hoboken Historical] Museum and I kept crossing paths with him,” she said.
O’Connor Carey said it wasn’t easy to jump back into the normal social life of a 30-year-old woman.
“Everybody’s answer would be different, but I had been with my late husband for 11 years,” she said. “I hadn’t been through the dating scene…and as a single mother that’s a total other component. It’s not just dating that was difficult, but any socializing is difficult when you want to maintain your privacy.”
In 2004, the group donated a church bell to All Saints as a token of their gratitude for helping them through the toughest times of their lives.
“My husband and I will be unable to attend the All Saints service on 9/11 this year, as has been our custom, as we will both be reading names at the ceremony at Ground Zero,” Orr-O’Keefe said. “However, during the moments of silence that day, we will definitely be thinking of the All Saints church bell gleaming in its tower and tolling from across the [Hudson] River.”
The members of the group continue to stay in touch today.
This week, O’Connor Carey and her husband will host a forum at All Saints Episcopal Church on Wednesday from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. The panel will focus on how Hoboken reacted and coped with 9/11.
Many of the women still remain involved in Sept. 11 memorials.
Ianelli helped start the “Joseph Ianelli 9/11 Scholarship Fund.” The scholarship fund is a non-profit focused on the educational needs of 9/11 families, survivors, rescue and recovery workers, and military families. The group provides tuition scholarships at all levels.
Orr-O’Keefe said she has worked with Rev. Robert Griner of All Saints Church to raise money for the new bell, ringer, and a maintenance fund at the parish.
“I will always find comfort in the fact that the bell will ring every 9/11 in honor of all those lost for years to come,” she said. “It also rings of course for happier occasions. As the bell rang on our wedding day on Feb. 4, 2006, it of course was bittersweet, but ultimately sent happy chills down my spine.”
Wurm said many in the group have found a new life outside of their loss.
“I would never suggest that they had moved on, because that suggests that the people they lost were forgotten,” Wurm said. “But one word I hear them use is that they are integrating the loss into their lives.”
Ray Smith may be reached at RSmith@hudsonreporter.com