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Evaluating a Ministry for the Future

The Parish of Trinity Church is in the midst of a comprehensive evaluation of what forms of ministry need to be developed in response to the devastating loss of life and destruction in the downtown Manhattan community.

The evaluation is taking place as the Parish experiences a dramatic increase in the number of visitors to Trinity Church and the nearby St. Paul’s Chapel, which have become places of spiritual pilgrimage to many of those who come to view the World Trade Center site.

After Trinity reopened on November 4, the number of visitors soared. Income at its Welcome Center tripled in November.

St Paul’s, which adjoins the disaster site, has been closed to the public since September 11 and is serving as a place of refuge in which rescue workers can eat, pray, rest and receive counseling. However, the chapel fence has become a gathering place for crowds of people every day since emergency management authorities allowed public access to the west side of Broadway. On Saturdays and Sundays the sidewalk is heavily congested.

A recent editorial in The New York Times, discussing the need for a memorial at the Trade Center site, noted that mourners were pouring into lower Manhattan from all over the world, “seeking a glimpse of the disaster site and a place to leave tokens of sympathy and support.”

The Times added: “Cut off from the ruins of the World Trade Center by temporary walls and closed streets, people congregate in front of St. Paul's Chapel…The church has responded to a pressing emotional need by inviting visitors to write their names and messages of support on large canvas dropcloths hung from the church's fence.”

By mid-December, more than 200 dropcloths had been filled. Some members of groups which have volunteered to help emergency workers inside the chapel which is still mostly closed to the public take turns to stand on the sidewalk, offering pens to those who want to leave a message.

St. Paul’s will held its first public services since September 11 on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. However, the ministry to firefighters, police and other rescue workers will continue into the New Year, as the Parish balances the public’s need for a focus of pilgrimage with the workers’ need for a quiet place of refuge.

In recent interviews with journalists, the Rector of Trinity Parish, the Rev. Dr. Daniel P. Matthews, has spoken of the Parish’s commitment to exploring “what this place will mean to Americans in the years ahead.”

He has noted that St. Paul’s has always been “a very significant national site.” During the Revolutionary War, when nearly 500 houses and Trinity Church were burned down, the newly-built St. Paul’s was saved by a bucket brigade and became a refuge for New Yorkers and the church in which George Washington gave thanks for his inauguration in 1789.

For many years the congregation’s main services have been held at Trinity. “Although we do have services and concerts at St. Paul’s, you can’t be a member of St. Paul’s. It has been more like a shrine or a museum,” he says.

“Now, 225 years later, there’s been another kind of fire which has destroyed part of New York. St. Paul’s is again a place of safety and refuge. Our daughter church has assumed a new importance.

“It will obviously be a very sacred space because of September 11. How that becomes a reality is obviously in its earliest stages of formation. It would be brazen to say now that we know what it’s going to look like in a year, or two, or five years from now.”

Many questions affecting the development of ministry at St. Paul’s still need answers: “Will the World Trade Center site have a memorial which will incorporate the use of the chapel? We don’t know. The chapel's location does lend itself to it being regarded as a holy site for all faith groups.”

While not wanting to predict exactly what form any development at St. Paul’s might take, Dr. Matthews suggests that some of the material which at present adorns the pews and pillars of the chapel -- cards and drawings from schoolchildren, as well as banners and posters from across the country -- might be displayed in a form designed by museum experts.

“What we do needs to be structured so that a brief visit by a mourner or a concerned citizen would be able to capture what has happened a memorable and manageable way.”

Whatever happens at St. Paul’s, it needs to look to the future as well as the past, Dr. Matthews adds: “Faith always looks with hope to the new beginnings God has for us as a people. It will not just be a shrine to the past, because all religious structures should point us in the direction to which God points us. We should also reflect a vision of what can be.”

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