NEWS FEATURE: Small Chapel Becomes Keeper of Sept. 11’s Spiritual Flame

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c. 2004 Religion News Service

NEW YORK _ The bells toll at 12:30 p.m. at the Episcopal chapel across the street from the World Trade Center site, but Gary Just of Glen Rock, N.J., is already praying in one of the scarred pews.

So are the honeymooners from Italy and the 12-year-old British Columbian. None are Episcopalian, but it doesn’t matter; today’s prayer service is Muslim. Tomorrow, it will be Native African.

At Ground Zero, tour guides and souvenirs recall the unspeakable horror of Sept. 11, 2001. But at St. Paul’s Chapel, the historic little church that survived, the day is recalled with joy at the “extraordinary outpouring of unwavering spirit” by rescue and volunteer workers.

By default, St. Paul’s has become the keeper of spiritual flame ignited by the terrorist attacks three years ago.

Dozens of other downtown churches and businesses joined St. Paul’s in offering refuge to recovery crews for the eight months after Sept. 11. But it was St. Paul’s where thousands of artifacts were left _ photographs, letters, teddy bears, flags, icons, patches, hats and eventually Mass cards for the dead.

It was St. Paul’s that decided to make the artifacts into a permanent exhibit honoring “the faith-affirming human response to the tragedy,” chapel lay minister Allesandra Pena said. The exhibit opened earlier this year.

St. Paul’s also decided to drop its daily Mass in favor of rotating prayers for peace from the world’s 12 major religions because so many of the 1 million people who have come to the church in the past year are not Christian, let alone Episcopalian.

But now St. Paul’s is struggling to maintain its mission as a church while acting as a museum and becoming a shrine.

“People say, `When will St. Paul’s be a church again?’ and we say, `We never stopped,”’ Pena said. “Right now, our mission is to put this tragedy into human context.

“We want people to say that what happened across the street should never happen to another mother’s child,” Pena said. “Not from terrorism, or a drunken driver or anything else. Let volunteerism be the legacy of 9/11.”

Filippo Amoruso didn’t even know he had reached Ground Zero until he walked through the oak doors of the chapel.

“Across the street, it is so clean, so sanitized, I didn’t know what I was seeing,” said Amoruso, who is from Italy and included the pilgrimage in his honeymoon. “Here, I begin to understand what happened.

“Here I see the tragedy, but I also see the miracles.”

On the day the twin towers collapsed, windows all over lower Manhattan were smashed. Buildings two blocks from the site are still being repaired.

But at St. Paul’s, which has stood since 1766, not a window was cracked. Not one crystal was lost from the 14 original cut-glass chandeliers hanging in the nave.

Of course, the chapel was covered with the toxic dust, but church officials refused to close for cleaning until the recovery workers were finished.

Today, it has been scrubbed and painted, except for the backs of the pews. They are scarred from the police and firemen who slept there. They weren’t allowed to remove their equipment packs, which gouged the 250-year-old wood.

Just inside the front door is a small altar covered with cards and posters of families seeking loved ones lost in the devastation. Those mementos were later covered with Mass cards and hand-written farewells.

In the former sacristy at the back of the chapel, a large scroll has been set up where visitors are encouraged to leave messages. They are written in various languages, from countries including Cambodia, China, France, Israel, Australia and Japan.

One message, written to a lost fireman, says:

“Hi, Charles. Whenever I come here I speak to you. Can you hear me? Love, April.”

From the balconies hang banners sent from places including Oklahoma City. There are computer stations around the church where visitors can view the digital archive: coverage of the tragedy and interviews with rescuers, survivors and volunteers.

“We had to come here,” said Aviv Tal, who came to Ground Zero from Victoria, British Columbia, with his 12-year-old daughter, Natasha. The pair are making a documentary film of their pilgrimage for Natasha to show at her school.

“We felt an unshakable need to be a witness. To pray. To experience. To share. To feel. To pray,” Tal said. “This place has become a sanctuary for all humanity.”

A sanctuary but not a shrine, insisted Pena. She said the chapel closes every evening to care for 10 homeless men, who found shelter at St. Paul’s long before Sept. 11.

Gary Just passes by St. Paul’s on his way to work near the Brooklyn Bridge, but never felt compelled to enter the chapel until after Sept. 11.

Now he comes at least three times a week. He brings his own Bible. He sits and prays, and thinks about the way people reacted after the horror.

“People were so much nicer to each other right after 9/11,” Just said. “But time passed and our priorities got skewed again. I pray for the caring to return.”


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