Despite being only a few meters from the World Trade Center, St. Paul’s Chapel survived the attacks intact and became a 24/7 assistance center. Twenty years later, the chapel once again wants to offer a space for “hospitality and healing”.
St. Paul’s Chapel, located directly across from the World Trade Center, is the oldest public building in continuous use in New York City. Built in 1760 as a parish for neighboring Trinity Church, the chapel survived the American Revolution and the Great Fire of 1776, which destroyed much of the surrounding area. It has welcomed American presidents ranging from George Washington to George HW Bush.
Yet perhaps the most difficult chapter in church history began at 8:46 am on September 11, 2001, when American Airlines Flight 11 struck the North Tower of the Trade Center. Within two hours, both towers collapsed, devastating the area and leaving thousands of people dead in the rubble. Another neighboring church, San Nicolás, was among the destroyed buildings.
St. Paul’s, miraculously, was virtually immaculate. Only one pane of glass was broken by the dust and debris that rained down, earning St. Paul’s the nickname “The Little Chapel That Found.” In a ceremony Saturday morning to mark the 20th anniversary attacks, Bishop Andrew Dietsche attributed the chapel’s good fortune to the trees that protect its cemetery.
At 8:46 am we rang the Bell of Hope as a salute to the fallen.
The Rt. Reverend Dietsche reflected on the mighty trees of the cemetery, which witnessed the destruction of # 911, “absorbed the concussion” and saved St. Paul’s Chapel.
They, like us, still stand firm. # NeverForget pic.twitter.com/pEXBRn2avF
– Trinity Church Wall Street (@TrinityWallSt) September 11, 2021
Church members did not spend much time counting their blessings. Instead, they turned St. Paul’s into a 24/7 help center, providing food, supplies and advice to first responders and local residents for more than eight months nonstop after the attacks.
James Melchiorre, who works on the church’s media team, was volunteering at another nearby site at the time. What surprised him the most was the number of people who kept coming at all hours of the day and night.
“I was working the night shift,” says Melchiorre, from 11 pm to 7 am. “We were cooking and taking out food and I remember thinking, well, it’ll slow down around three, right? It never slowed down. ”
Church and community members turned St. Paul’s into a 24/7 help center, providing food, supplies and advice to local first responders and residents for more than eight months in a row. © Leo Sorel
Lower Manhattan was consumed with recovery efforts, but also a deep sense of mourning. The 343 firefighters killed in the attacks received especially memorable tributes, says Melchiorre.
“For days and weeks afterward, there were these elaborate burials with bagpipes and everything,” he recalls.
“The other thing I remember is that wherever you look, on every flat surface, there were photographs of the missing,” continues Melchiorre. “People, in the early days, desperately hoped that maybe they had survived. There would be a photo and they would say, he has a tattoo on his left ankle … ”
Among those who helped sift through the still-smoking remains of the towers and retrieve the bodies of the victims was Ángel Rodríguez, a sanitation worker from the Bronx. Now retired, Rodríguez, 79, spent 52 days at Ground Zero and still finds the devastation difficult to explain.
“You see so many people crying, you know, guys from the Fire Department crying like a baby, pulling out bodies,” Rodríguez recalls. The seven weeks he spent working on the site left him feeling “down,” he says, but if there was an advantage, it was that “everyone was together.”
Ángel Rodríguez, a retired sanitation worker from the Bronx, spent 52 days at Ground Zero, working to examine the smoldering remains and recover the bodies of the victims. © Colin Kinniburgh, France 24
Rodriguez wore a professional grade mask during recovery efforts and has thus far been spared from notable impacts on his physical health. Others who spent time at Ground Zero right after the attacks have not been so lucky.
Cynthia Moten was at her apartment in Battery Park, a few blocks from the Trade Center, when the first plane crashed.
“I describe it as the loudest noise I’ve ever heard,” he tells FRANCE 24.
He turned on his television to find out what was going on. When the second plane crashed, he realized that it had not been an accident and prepared to leave the building.
Military in St. Paul’s Chapel on September 11, 2001. © Courtesy of Trinity Church
“While I was in the elevator, the first building collapsed and the elevator stopped,” says Moten. Luckily, it stopped on the ground. But the thing is, we have windows on the floor. And when I got out of the elevator, it was black. I couldn’t understand what happened. Did they knock me out? Is it night?
When he came out, the area was covered in ash.
“It was light gray, I guess it looked like snow,” Moten recalls, except it was littered with “shoes, glasses and papers … It’s really hard to remember.”
Moten returned to his apartment after spending about a month in a hotel, and he stayed there while Ground Zero continued to burn for months more. Since then, he has been diagnosed with chronic sinusitis and gastrointestinal damage, and his care is covered by the World Trade Center Health Program.
Neighborhood resident Cynthia Moten, left, with the Rev. Phillip A. Jackson, priest in charge of Trinity Church. © Colin Kinniburgh, France 24
For the 20th anniversary of September 11, St. Paul’s Chapel began its weekend commemorations at 8:46 a.m. with a ringing of the Bell of Hope, as it has done every year since 2002. St. Paul received the bell that September as a gift from her sister church in London.
Throughout Saturday, visitors filtered through the church to pay their respects.
Firefighters Jamie Monroe, Glenn Smith and Joel White rode bikes from California to attend the September 11 commemorations this year. Along with nine other members of the Fire Velo group, they pedaled for 40 days across the country to raise funds for firefighters with cancer and other health conditions.
“It’s a really emotional deal for us,” says Glenn Smith, 59, retired after 31 years with the Los Angeles County Fire Department. “We have stopped at several different memorials, and you hear … the process of what really happened. And it catches up with you and catches you. ”
From left to right: Glenn Smith, Jamie Monroe and Joel White of Fire Velo. The group rode their bikes from California to New York to raise money for the health care of other firefighters. © Colin Kinniburgh, France 24
“One of the things I noticed is that when we were biking through some of these communities, there was no politics, there were no Republicans, there were no Democrats,” adds Joel White, 63, a retiree from the Marinwood Fire Department in California. “Everyone supported… stood up and waved or clapped, or said, ‘Do you need something? What do you need?’ And that was really good to see this country right now. ”
Sam Trujillo, a retired fellow firefighter from Albuquerque, New Mexico, is also hopeful that tributes can be a source of reconciliation. Trujillo, 75, retired in 1985 but returned to serve after 9/11 as part of a federal task force in response to the attack on the Pentagon. He has come to New York for various commemorations over the years, to honor what he calls the “brotherhood” of firefighters. This year, for the first time, he brought his son Joe, who is retired from the military.
Retired firefighter Sam Trujillo of Albuquerque, New Mexico and his son Joe, a military veteran. © Colin Kinniburgh, France 24
The Rev. Matt Welsch, 33, one of St. Paul’s newest priests, says the church’s goal is to provide a space of peace as America remembers a day when “we were all transformed.”
“St. Paul’s Chapel was such an important healing presence during the aftermath of September 11,” says Welsch. “So we’re trying to re-invoke that spirit of hospitality and healing by providing a space for people to return.” .
The Rev. Matt Welsch, 33, is one of the newer priests at Trinity Church / St. Paul’s Chapel. © Colin Kinniburgh, France 24
“All of us are changed, whether we realize it or not, by the events of September 11,” says Welsch. And while the attacks brought many changes for the worse, fueling a global cycle of war and bloodshed, Welsch says, “There is something beautiful about the fact that we have communities of faith and other forms of community that remain constant and provide a sense of structure, support and hope in the midst of all the changes. “