Fame and faith in 'the 9/11 chapel'
The Rev. Stuart Hoke, in his ornate green vestments, looks out of place at St. Paul's Chapel. His noonday Eucharist prayers seem a mere curiosity here. The room, after all, has become somewhat of a tourist attraction, given over to the aftermath of 9/11. But the priest carries on, preaching to a distracted and ever-shifting congregation – a tank-topped, flip-flopped river of strangers that slowly makes its way around the perimeter of the sanctuary.Skip to next paragraph
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Every moment or two, someone will take a pew, sit down, or kneel, then stand up mid-sermon and leave. They have come, after all, to honor the dead and to see the chapel's artifacts – the famous banners, the photos, the toys, the badges, notes, flags, and plastic roses – what parishioner J. Chester Johnson describes in a poem as the "litter of the heart" left behind five years ago.
By an open door next to the altar, a bright red double-decker tour bus idles.
St. Paul's Chapel became known worldwide for its role as a physical and spiritual mender of the exhausted relief workers from the smoldering "pit" of ground zero across the street. If not for the side altar covered with pictures of the many, many young and handsome dead, its exhibit would seem to chronicle triumph. For while the world counted lives lost, the chapel counted meals served, supplies donated, volunteer efforts brought during an eight-month, round-the-clock recovery period. Finally, St. Paul's emerged as a symbol of the incalculable goodness spawned by the horrific events of 9/11.
From the inside, the response was peaceful – a matter of lightly "steering," says Diane Reiners, who coordinated the 14,000, mostly autonomous, volunteers. Management, when it happened, was a matter of "a little more of this, a little less of that."
Its recovery role complete, when it was reopened to the public on Sept. 11, 2002, St. Paul's found itself thrust into another singular ministry – as a de facto memorial for visitors to ground zero, where officials have yet to designate a formal shrine. In a typical month, 35,000 come to the chapel, wiping eyes, blowing noses, studying intently the artifacts on display. "Did you see? That was Mike's picture right by the door," a woman says to her companion.
Outside, the ancient graveyard offers a shady respite from the bright void across the street, but the well-worn interior has become a holy place for pilgrims of all creeds. "To us, this is a house of God," says Fred Leznek, of suburban Chicago, who is Jewish. Mr. Leznek, clearly moved, visited with his wife, daughter, and granddaughter. The fact that the chapel suffered not so much as a broken window even as the towers fell just yards away, is a "miracle unto itself," he says. "It means that God's presence was here."
The pews at St. Paul's were thoroughly gouged and chipped by the rescue workers who slept in them. They now harbor a second wave of witnesses to ground zero – who, slinging cameras, water bottles, and backpacks – makes its own mark on the chapel's history. Says Dr. Hoke, "Part of our ethos as Episcopalians is this broad hospitality. The door is open: Use the thing."
St. Paul's is – perhaps secondarily, now – Episcopal. Opened in 1766 at Broadway and Fulton Streets as part of the vast Trinity Church Wall Street parish, it is the oldest public building in Manhattan in continuous use. Before 9/11, Trinity's long-neglected daughter chapel saw 100 visitors weekly at best. A single Sunday service drew 18 or 20, and a few history buffs stopped by to look at George Washington's pew. There was no full-time staff.