Still Standing

A Chapel Spared Beside Ground Zero Stirs Talk of Miracle










By David Abel  |  Globe Staff  |  9/26/2001

NEW YORK -- All around it, once-mighty buildings are either in a heap of rubble, charred black and windowless, or still smoldering, with smoke rising through giant gashes scarring their facades and wrecking their foundations.

Yet somehow St. Paul's Chapel, Manhattan's oldest public building and the house of worship George Washington visited in 1789 after his inauguration at nearby Federal Hall, is intact.

A block away from the World Trade Center, the small, ornate chapel doesn't even have a broken window. When the Rev. Lyndon F. Harris began traversing the maze of checkpoints set up after the Sept. 11 attack, he was certain his 235-year-old chapel would be in ruins.

"My heart was beating so loudly, you could hear it in my chest," said Harris, who was nearly crushed by falling rubble when he rushed to help in the rescue operation after the first jet hit the Twin Towers.

He imagined the destruction of some of the earliest relics of American history that have remained in St. Paul's over the years - the oldest known oil painting depicting the Great Seal of the United States; the 200-year-old, cut-glass chandeliers from Waterford, Ireland; and an array of monuments and tombstones depicting and commemorating some of the country's earliest heroes.

Early in the morning on Sept. 12, police escorted him to the chapel, and Harris still can't believe his eyes.

"It's hard to say this isn't a miracle, the fruit of some divine intervention," he said. "I think it stands as a beacon of hope and a metaphor of good standing in the face of evil."

Other houses of worship were not so lucky. A few blocks away, among the mounds of twisted steel and pulverized concrete, is what remains of St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church.

What happened to St. Nicholas has left many of St. Paul's nearly 200 congregants uneasy.

"I don't know why it was us and not them," said Nancy Nind, 55, a parishioner at St. Paul's for the past three decades. "I think our fate means we have a mission to do something."

Part of that mission, she said, is to help out as much as possible with the rescue operation.

In addition to serving as a depot for air filters, medical supplies, and bottled water, the chapel's pews over the past two weeks have been beds for droves of police officers, firefighters, and soldiers taking a break from shifts often lasting as long as 20 hours. Hundreds of rescue workers have been fed in the chapel.

"It's amazing how peaceful this place can be, given how much is going on around it," said David Capellini, a police officer who had walked by St. Paul's for years without entering. "This church will always mean something to me, especially now that I know its history."

He took solace in a prayer by Washington, etched in bronze a few feet away. It begins: "Almighty God we make our earnest prayer that thou wilt keep the United States in thy holy protection."

In a speech before thousands of New Yorkers at a prayer service on Sunday
at Yankee Stadium, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani described the unblemished brownstones and Ionic pillars of St. Paul's as the "miracle of September 11."

"The presence of that chapel, standing defiant and serene amid the ruins, sends an eloquent message about the strength and resilience of the people of New York City and the people of America," he said.

That's also how Roy Henry, the church's 68-year-old head of security, felt when he first returned to St. Paul's after running for his life from the chapel during the attack.

Chunks of steel, a blizzard of paper, and assorted rubble were scattered all around the chapel. Ash several inches thick coated the Georgian masonry and drifted through an open window, dusting much of the sanctuary inside. But everything was intact.

"Just look around," Henry said. "If this isn't a miracle, I don't know what is."
David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com.  Follow him on Twitter @davabel.

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