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Fame and faith in 'the 9/11 chapel'

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Ironically, in early 2001, Trinity – a wealthy, powerful, elegantly high church in its worship style – had sought to make better use of St. Paul's in hopes of reaching a younger base. They experimented, with little success, with various alternative worship forms. Reincarnated, the chapel now hosts 60 or so for its daily prayer for peace, and about 120 at the two services on Sunday. Two of the Trinity Church staff of 200 take care of St. Paul's full time, and the mother church helps underwrite the cost of chapel operations, which, despite its little gift stand and its collection boxes, run at a loss.

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Everyone from the local Masonic lodge to the top NFL draft picks has visited, says Alessandra Pena, program administrator. Choirs that sing here consider it more meaningful than performing at Carnegie Hall, she says. St. Paul's has also joined the Community of the Cross of Nails, a global ecumenical reconciliation ministry inspired by the post-World War II acts of forgiveness of German and British citizens.

And then there's the media – which have logged dozens upon dozens of interview requests in recent weeks, according to Trinity spokeswoman Donna Presnell. "Good Morning America" plans to broadcast its show from the chapel on 9/11, breaking away for the memorial service that will mark the attack on the twin towers. Whether dealing with the individual visitor, the international community, or the press, the ultimate mission of the chapel is advancing the cause of reconciliation and peace, Ms. Pena says.

Hoke, along with many at St. Paul's, was there on 9/11 when the towers came down. Like others at ground zero, he suffered greatly for a full year afterward – with acute fear of planes, nightmares, and other evidence of post-traumatic stress. It also left him with "an enormous sense of my own mortality, of the shortness and uncertainty of my life," he says. The attacks served to "ground" him, he says, and he now knows with certainty that he wants to live out his life at the parish. "I have the sense of wanting to get on with my life – to nurture relationships with people I love."

After five years, the residue of death and destruction is yielding to revitalization in those around him as the neighborhood rebuilds and recovers, he says. Ultimately, the attacks "stretched my view of how broad God is and how God works through all events and through all of creation."

Meanwhile, the visitors to his church, "his parishioners," such as they are, are "shopping for sound bites," Hoke observes good-naturedly. "They sit down for a couple of minutes, and if it gets boring they're gone.... Sometimes they'll comment on an aspect of a sermon or hymn.... At first I was unnerved by it. I wanted to say, 'Sit down and settle.' But after three or four months, I began to get more comfortable with this, and to see it as an opportunity, not a disturbance."

Where his seminary training centered on the hour-long spiritual counsel appointment, his pastoral hour now lasts maybe 30 seconds, as he is stopped on his way up the center aisle by an anonymous pilgrim who seeks to unburden himself in confession or to scare up a bus ticket. Rescue workers come in to have their badges blessed. One mother of a World Trade Center victim came in and asked the priest to bless her son's socks.

Even after a formal ground zero memorial opens, Mr. Johnson, a Trinity vestryman, says that he doubts that the Episcopal Church will try to wrestle the chapel from its recent incarnation as shrine. The juxtaposition of the good that took place here versus the destruction across the street seems too vivid. For now, at least, the congregation in search of purpose has had its purpose handed to it.

"For centuries," says Johnson, "we were incubating."