Community of prayer, community of hope 

Aug 13, 2021

We spoke with alumni and staff who were at Creighton on Sept. 11, 2001. They recalled a campus coming together in the face of crisis — with faith, hope and prayer.

Featured Testimonial About Creighton University

Prayer service in front of St. John's on 9/11.

I will always remember the compassion that the Creighton community exhibited. I will always remember the acts of kindness and support that were shown on that day.


In the month leading up to the 20-year anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001, we're running a series of related articles. We'll speak with the families of alumni killed in the attacks. We'll share alumni, faculty and staff memories of a campus coming together amid tragedy.

More in this series:

A Creighton professor's near miss with tragedy

Photos at Creighton on the day of 9/11

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By Micah Mertes

Creighton was just a few weeks into a new semester the morning the world changed.

Students, faculty and staff heard the news while waking up, driving to campus, walking to class along the Mall. Twenty years later, their memories of Sept. 11, 2001, remain vivid — not just of the attacks and the media coverage, but of how Creighton responded.

We spoke with (or heard from) about a dozen members of the Creighton community about their experience of that day, when a campus came together in the face of crisis — with faith, hope and prayer.

Photos courtesy of the University Archives.

The morning of 9/11

The first plane struck the North tower of the World Trade Center complex at 7:46 a.m. CDT, right as many Creighton students were heading to their first class.

Stacey Ullrich DeMaranville, BSN '02: I arrived on campus and went to class as usual. When I got out, I had multiple messages on my phone from my parents and boyfriend about the attack. As a future nurse, I wondered what it was like for the hospitals when emergencies of this magnitude occurred. I prayed for them.

Kurt Morrison, BA’02, president of the Creighton Students Union at the time: I remember standing in the Skutt Student Center with a few friends when a crowd of people formed in front of the TVs. As we watched one of the towers fall, a guy standing next to me said, “Wait a minute. Did thousands of people just die?” And I remember saying, “No, I'm sure they all got out." We just had no idea what was unfolding.

Shay Graves Burk, BA’04: Across the top of my AOL Instant Messenger box was a news item saying that a plane had flown into one of the towers. I remember thinking it was a fluke until my roommate rushed in and turned on the TV.

Colleen Warin, BA'69, who worked at Creighton from 1987-2012: I was working as special assistant to Fr. John Schlegel (Creighton president at the time). That beautiful morning, I was scheduled to attend a staff development session in in the Skutt Student Center. Right as the session was starting, the news came up on the big TVs.

Michele K. Bogard, PhD, associate vice provost for Student Engagement: I was two months into my job in Student Activities (now SLIC). We took a 9-inch TV and made a paperclip chain as an antenna and stuck it in the ceiling grid to watch the news.

Patrick Gilger, SJ, BA'02: Few of our friends even had cell phones at that point, and it was before texting became so ubiquitous, before Twitter. Information just didn't move that fast. You listened to the radio or watched TV. And because you had to do that, it meant you had to watch the image of the plane hitting and the buildings falling over and over again.

St. John's Church prayer service on 9/11.

Joel Schwartzkopf, BSEMS'04: I had just started the paramedic program after having worked as an EMT and volunteer firefighter for the past few years. We were supposed to learn how to do IVs that day in class. Everybody in the room was either a firefighter, EMT or a paramedic. As we watched the footage, there was a moment when you could hear this high-pitched whistling. People in the room started crying because we knew what that sound meant. We knew it was the sound of a PASS device, an alarm that sounds when a firefighter is in distress.

Lt. Col. Brad Koerner, BA'02: I was attending Creighton on an ROTC scholarship I received while serving on active duty in the D.C. area. I remember waking up to what happened and simply not believing what I saw. I was a senior at the time and knew my Army commissioning was just around the corner. Little did I know at the time how that day would be the focus of the rest of my life.

Lt. Col. Koerner entered active duty after graduating from Creighton. He was deployed to Kuwait in 2003 and to Iraq two additional times.

Lt. Col. Koerner: We were very tied to the ROTC community at Creighton, and this event kept our relationships strong and helped us focus on our commitment to our country.

Creighton’s response

Graves Burk: I remember that Fr. Schlegel announced that students didn’t have to go to classes the rest of the day, but that classes would still be held as a way for students to gather and talk.

Morrison: One of the first thoughts that day was we need to assure the international students that we’re going to support them no matter what lay ahead head. The leadership also deployed peer educators and counseling personnel, as there were a lot of students who needed someone to talk to. Creighton had a very quick and supportive reaction, all around.

Bogard: I remember getting a call from Dr. Tanya Winegard (Vice Provost for Student Life) to check in from across campus and to ensure that Student Services (now Student Life) was engaging with our students. We walked campus to be present with students.

Morrison: Groups of students helped cut out ribbons and print prayer cards to distribute to the student body. Other students left campus to buy flowers to lay at the steps of St. John’s Church to symbolize our support of the victims and their families.

Gilger: 9/11 was a tragedy that was in your visceral space, in your mental space. I remember this combination of the inescapability of the event and our incapacity to respond. So, a lot of my friends started looking for ways to help.

Schwartzkopf: I felt like I needed to do something, so my friend and I walked over to the blood bank to donate. But they were already overwhelmed with volunteers.

Morrison: The staff ensured that the Skutt Student Center remained a location where people could find both information and support. Faculty supported their students both inside and outside the classrooms. Numbers of Jesuits spent their day on the Mall, in the Student Center and in the resident halls to offer their support. The list goes on.


More than 1,000 people attended a noon Mass at St. John’s Church, packing the pews, standing in the aisles. Then-Creighton President the Rev. John P. Schlegel, SJ, told the crowd that that morning would be forever “seared on our memories.”

“No words can encapsulate the scope of the human and material tragedy,” Fr. Schlegel said. “All of us have confronted the fragility of human life. All of us, from whatever religious tradition, see the need for a comforting and peace-giving God.”

Warin: Father Schlegel offered us comfort in our fear and grief.

Tom Shanahan, SJ, wrote at the time: There they were – young and old – gathering to be together and to look to the Lord for comfort.

Gilger: Some people were responding with these beautiful statements of incomprehension. As a student or faculty member at Creighton, you learned how to be with each other, in a space of mourning, in the midst of chaos. As students, it meant a lot to have older adults telling us that not everyone can be a master of the world at all moments, and that that's OK.

Schwartzkopf: I can't imagine a better place to be at that time. At a place that really valued community and spiritual and emotional support.

Shanahan: Two different kinds of tears came to my eyes. The first were tears of sadness and confusion about the magnitude of (the attacks). I can’t even imagine the toll of pain and hurt for the wounded and for the families of loved ones lost. The other kind of tears were of the great joy in seeing the crowd at St. John's coming together for support and for some sign of hope in the hopelessness of the situation.

Air Force One

Some alumni we spoke with remember walking along the Mall when Air Force One flew over Omaha. President George W. Bush had made a stop at the nearby Offutt Air Force Base, home of U.S. Strategic Air Command.

Bogard: The only plane in the sky that day was Air Force One, coming to SAC. An eerie sight.

Morrison: Everyone knew that day that if you heard a plane engine, something might be wrong. So, when we heard the plane, we didn’t know what to think.

Schwartzkopf: It was late in the day, and we heard a jet coming in, and we saw it was a jumbo jet heading toward downtown Omaha. We just had this, like, sinking feeling. Why is there a plane headed toward downtown Omaha? But as it got closer you could read along the side of the plane: “United States of America.”

Morrison: The other students and I just looked at each other, and it really set in that this was a day unlike any other we were going to experience.

Schwartzkopf: People just started cheering. At that moment, it didn’t matter where you were politically. There was a sense of unity, a feeling that we're going to get through this.

The multi-faith prayer service

That evening, more than 500 people gathered around the fountain in front of St. John’s Church for a multi-faith prayer service, which included prayers from a variety of faiths and traditions. The service stressed Creighton's international and multi-faith communities. Students recited Christian, Native American, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu and Jewish prayers.

Warin: Word went through the Student Center that Fr. Schlegel would be leading campus in prayer in front of St. John’s.

1st Lt. Regina Wall, BA’05, an ROTC student at the time: I worked for Campus Ministry that year, my freshman year. And the question was, what do we do? And the answer was, we need to support each other. We need to go to St. John’s and hold hands and pray together.

Graves Burk: It was another way Creighton helped us come together in that awful moment.

Theresa Thurin, MS'14, senior manager of academic support in the School of Medicine: It felt like a family caring for one another during a terrible tragedy.

Morrison: There was a lot of nervousness in and for the international student community that day. But Creighton is and was so incredibly inclusive and inviting of students of all faiths. You saw that when a lot of groups were comfortable in coming out and celebrating their faiths. They knew that they would be welcomed and supported.

Three days later, Creighton held Mass as part of the National Day of Prayer and Remembrance. The bells of St. John’s were tolled at 12:30 p.m. to observe a moment of silence for the victims. A message board was placed in front of St. John’s so passersby could share their thoughts and hopes.

Fr. Schlegel, in a message to the campus, wrote: “As a community, Creighton must respond to these events in a positive and responsive manner. We are a community who cares about its many parts. This is a time to listen, to hold, to help and to heal one another. So let us remain the wonderful, unified community that we are. Let us be a community of prayer and a community of hope.”

Acts of kindness

1st Lt. Wall: It’s the little things I remember from that day. Like my roommate, whose parents lived in Omaha, inviting me to their home so I didn’t have to be alone.

Thurin: At one point during the prayer service, I began to cry. A big, burly student standing next to me slipped his arm around my shoulders. At the end of the service, we turned to each other and shared a hug. He was a gentle giant, and I felt his strength and compassion. It was a special moment that I cherish.

1st Lt. Wall: People bind together in times like this. They love one another, care for one another.

Gilger: That day also helped people realize that their lives were fragile but that they could do something that would be meaningful for others. That they could have an impact. I know that the Jesuit vocation saw an uptick after September 11th. Millennials, you know, we’re not a perfect generation, but that event provided a catalyst for many of us to want to give our lives in love and sacrifice.

Shortly after the attacks, Creighton Students Union President Kurt Morrison wrote a letter to the editor for the Creightonian:

Morrison wrote: When I look back on Sept, 11, 2001, I will most definitely remember the images witnessed on television in the Student Center with 200 other students, staff and faculty. But I will also remember, just as vividly, the compassion that the Creighton community exhibited. I will always remember the acts of kindness and support that were shown on that day.

Gilger: Creighton is not structured by ideas so much as it is the habits and the spirit that fills those habits. That’s what makes Creighton itself. It’s one of the things that differentiates Jesuit, Catholic spaces from secular spaces. Secularity is defined by a diffusion, a disjointedness of spaces of common practice and identity. That's not the case at Creighton. On that day, everyone knew where to go.