St. Paul's Chapel and 9/11

After the attacks of September 11, 2001, St. Paul’s Chapel, which sits directly across the street from the World Trade Center site, suffered no physical damage.

On September 12, Lyndon Harris, then a priest on the clergy staff at Trinity and St. Paul’s, arrived at St. Paul’s Chapel expecting major damage. He was amazed to find that the church was without even a pane of glass broken. The exterior of St. Paul’s and its churchyard were covered in debris. After engineers inspected the building and pronounced it sound, cleanup began.

As recovery work started at the World Trade Center site, hundreds of rescue workers came to Lower Manhattan to search for survivors and begin sorting through the ruins. Slowly at first, rescue workers, police, and firefighters stopped by the chapel to rest and wash up. Because long, exhausting shifts prevented many workers from going home, the chapel opened its doors so that they could rest . Shortly after, an outdoor grill was fired up, and volunteers began to serve food to hungry rescue and recovery workers.

Volunteers from Seamen’s Church Institute arrived on September 15 with food, clothing, and other supplies. Labor of Love, an Episcopal relief ministry based in Asheville, North Carolina, arrived on September 21. The volunteers were all experienced in disaster relief and skilled in offering support and guidance during a crisis.

During all hours of the day and night, rescue and recovery workers staggered through the gates of the chapel. Hungry and weary, weighed down with gear, wearing boots half-melted from the fiery ash, they fell into St. Paul’s open embrace. After working grueling 12–18 hour shifts at Ground Zero, rescue and recovery workers knew that St. Paul’s was a place they could rest for a few hours before returning to the pit.

In the first three months after September 11, more than 3,000 workers passed through the chapel’s gates. Police officers, Port Authority workers, firefighters, National Guardsmen, construction and sanitation crews, engineers and technicians found their way to St. Paul’s. The recovery workers were changed by what they volunteered to do at Ground Zero, but they also were changed by the ministry offered to them by St. Paul’s and its volunteers.

 

People Pitch In

In the days immediately following September 11, New York residents went to grocery and drug stores and bought supplies of all types to donate to the rescue efforts. Donations included water, work gloves, first-aid kits and bandages, soap, hand lotion, clothing, blankets, socks, boots, hard hats, rain gear, aspirin, and a variety of other everyday needs. Everything was used.

People, supplies, and memorials covered every inch of the chapel. Cots, massage tables, and food stations lined the perimeter. Volunteers crammed tables with clothing, shoes, and toiletries. Long tables were piled high with fresh fruit. Boxes overflowed with candy, cookies, chips, energy bars, gum, and cigarettes.

Volunteers helped put the workers’ bodies and souls back together so they could continue their grueling tasks at Ground Zero. Doctors, nurses, lawyers, podiatrists, chiropractors, massage therapists, musicians, artists, chefs, counselors, clergy, and countless others signed up for 12-hour shifts. Chiropractors and massage therapists soothed the workers’ aching backs. Podiatrists used George Washington’s presidential pew to patch and stitch tired, injured feet. On the chapel’s grand piano, musicians played Amazing Grace and Danny Boy at least once a day. The care offered by the volunteers provided relief to the workers and brought forth stories and sometimes tears.

Streaming in from across the country, volunteers were given tasks, and chaplains were organized on a round-the-clock schedule. What had started as a place for workers to simply recover from their labor at Ground Zero became a place filled with love, hope, and support: a place where reconciliation began to be a possibility.

 

Faith Brings People Together

Despite hosting hundreds of workers each day, St. Paul’s Chapel never lost sight of its role as a house of worship. Workers and volunteers from different backgrounds and faiths participated in the daily Eucharist.

Worship also went beyond the chapel’s Episcopal prayers and Eucharists. Visitors to St. Paul’s during this time shared their individual practices, including a Japanese Shinto service in the cemetery, a Native American peace-pipe ceremony, a Baha’i prayer, a Hanukkah service, a Buddhist chant, a Mennonite choir performance, and an Islamic chant.

More than 300 clergy volunteered to cover the daily liturgy and to listen to and counsel workers. They often put aside their own grief and spent many sleepless nights soothing those immersed in the tragedy they were dealing with in their work at Ground Zero. In the pews, workers whispered their stories and unburdened their minds. Volunteers and workers cried, prayed, and found solace in the communal warmth of St. Paul’s.

 

Messages From Around the World

After September 11, thousands of visitors transformed the wrought-iron fence surrounding St. Paul’s Chapel into a spontaneous memorial. They posted banners, posters, personalized t-shirts, flags, letters, religious items, and many other mementos that held significant personal meaning.

As people around the nation and the world learned about the ministry at St. Paul’s Chapel, large banners with messages of love and solidarity for New York and the recovery workers began to arrive at the chapel. Letters, drawings, crafts, and cards of support and encouragement poured in from students, cities, civic groups, and individuals. Thousands of strings of multi-colored origami peace cranes, known as Senbazuru, were sent from school children and other groups throughout Japan, including survivors of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The letters, drawings, banners, and peace cranes were taped to the pews and columns and displayed throughout the chapel for workers to see and read.

 

A Routine Begins to Return

On February 13, 2002, Ash Wednesday, St. Paul’s Chapel opened to the public for Imposition of Ashes, and a continuous stream of people entered the chapel. Staff and volunteers tried to maintain the sanctity of the rescue workers’ space with signs posted outside the chapel: Imposition of Ashes to the left; rescue workers to the right.

That March, Trinity Church decided to reopen the chapel to the public. But after receiving more than a thousand letters, petitions, and press coverage, Trinity announced that it would not end its ministry until the recovery work was completed at Ground Zero.

In May 2002 a closing service was held at St. Paul’s for the workers. Rafe Greco, an ironworker who often slept at St. Paul’s, said he and his colleagues would “never have been able to do it without St. Paul’s Chapel.” Tom Geraghty, a construction worker whose sister-in-law was a victim of the attacks, said he “cursed God” until he found the chapel. He said St. Paul’s was simultaneously a “kitchen, a therapist’s couch, a little stage on Broadway, a bedroom, an art gallery, and a doctor’s office.” It was “a place to get my thoughts and emotions back on track.”

At noon on June 2, there was a last, private service for the workers, and then it was time to end the chapel’s unexpected ministry. A small group of volunteers removed the banners, posters, and cards from the walls, cataloged everything, and wrapped it all carefully.

During the nine months of ministry, St. Paul’s had become much more than a place just to eat and sleep. It had become a community of people who cared—about the work being done and the people doing it. A spirit of volunteerism gave birth to a community dedicated to healing. St. Paul’s became a symbol of recovery and hope. It remains such a symbol today.