Below Ground, Blessing a Fresh Tunnel Where Diggers Risk Their Lives

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. He has been a sandhog for 40 years and runs what is called the hog house, a trailer parked at Second Avenue and 87th Street where workers change clothes and take breaks.

No one has been killed on the Second Avenue project, Mr. Donohue said, although there have been injuries, including a worker who lost a finger two weeks ago. (Last fall, a sandhog died in an accident during work on another project, in a tunnel beneath Park Avenue.)

Several stories beneath the street, Father Kowalski delivered his prayer that “God will bring this construction to successful completion and that his protection will keep those who work on it safe from injury.”

Reading from a letter of Paul to the Corinthians, he added, “For no one can lay a foundation other than the one that is there, namely our Lord.”

Then he sprinkled holy water on the ground and invited the sandhogs to sing sometime for his parishioners.

“We may not have the best voices,” a construction supervisor said with a laugh.

One worker, Aaron Profit, wore a necklace with two pendants: one with the sandhogs’ union insignia and the other honoring St. Barbara.

“St. Barbara is the patron saint of miners and airplane pilots,” said Mr. Profit, 32, the son and grandson of Pennsylvania coal miners. “She’s the patron saint of instant death. If something was to happen, that you would die instantly instead of suffering.”

After praying with the sandhogs, Father Kowalski rode the mesh cage back up to the street and walked through the hog house, which is equipped for the heavy-duty cleaning that the workers need after their shifts. It has three hot-water heaters and a bank of washing machines and large lockers.

On this morning, there were about a dozen men “shaping up” — union members without steady work who were looking for a shift. They looked toward the priest as if they could use a good blessing themselves. They stared at the lockers and hoped that the shop steward on site would come out and tell them to suit up.

“If they see you’re steady and sober and can do a day’s work, they put you on,” Mr. Donohue said.

The men waited. Finally, one of them was called down to work and headed for the cage. The rest said they would return in the afternoon and try for a spot on the second shift.

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