On another Tuesday morning eleven years ago today, the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center cast their final shadows over the neighboring buildings in lower Manhattan. Before noon that day, the shadows would be gone, and so were the towers. The world– and the New York City skyline– had changed forever.
One small, unassuming building that miraculously escaped the effects of the collapse of the towers and the resulting hurricane of debris and humanity was St. Paul’s Chapel. As the oldest continuous-use public building in New York City, it survived the burning of New York in September 1776 when the British re-took the city from the Continental army. Back then, St. Paul’s was saved by a bucket brigade. Flash forward to 2001, and it was saved by a 100-year-old sycamore tree that bore the brunt of the towers’ collapse, shielding the small building as if Divine Providence were saving it for a special purpose.
Within days of the terrorist attacks in 2001, St. Paul’s became a place of refuge for the rescuers. Due to its close proximity to Ground Zero, rescue and recovery workers would make their way to the chapel where they found a hot meal, massage therapists to soothe their aching muscles, and people to pray with them and for them to soothe their aching souls. Some would just come to rest or sleep in the pews after long hours of working in “the pit” that was Ground Zero. One police officer called St. Paul’s an “oasis of heaven in the midst of hell.”
Volunteers from all faiths and walks of life came from around the country to help the helpers. This ministry to the workers at Ground Zero continued for several months until the recovery work officially ended in May 2002.
This wasn’t the first time in its history that St. Paul’s filled an important role as a place for reflection and worship for citizens and leaders following a traumatic time. Another American hero made his way to the doors of the chapel on a day long before 9-11. Before attending a service of thanksgiving at St. Paul’s in April 1789, President George Washington was inaugurated just a short walk away from the chapel in Federal Hall (on Wall Street). At that time, the nation’s capital was New York City. Having just come through the war for our independence, the young nation and its citizens were in need of direction and an uplifting sentiment from their new leader (much like the days following the attacks). In his inaugural address, Washington stated:
“No People can be bound to acknowledge and adore the invisible hand, which conducts the Affairs of men more than the People of the United States. Every step, by which they have advanced to the character of an independent nation, seems to have been distinguished by some token of providential agency.”
The same could be said of the little chapel that survived the fall of the Twin Towers. Today, St. Paul’s Chapel remains, as always, a place of worship, but also serves as sort of a mini-museum to where the events of September 11, 2001 can be remembered and reflected upon by all who visit there. Several exhibits memorialize those who perished, and pay tribute to the brave police officers, firemen and other first-responders who put themselves in harm’s way in order to save others.