Shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, St. Paul's Chapel on Broadway at Wall Street closed its doors to the public and opened them to the firefighters, police and other workers at the nearby World Trade Center site. Staffed by volunteers, the chapel has provided food and refuge around the clock ever since.
The historic 1766 chapel itself is covered with hazardous residue from the fallen towers. Earlier this month, New York's environment department ordered it to shut down for cleanup. The chapel was scheduled to close after today. But last week, in response to the request of the city commissioner responsible for the ground zero effort, the vicar of the Parish of Trinity Church announced that St. Paul's would continue its relief work until the end of May.
On Sept. 11, the Rev. Lyndon Harris was preparing to meet the Archbishop of Wales for bagels and coffee before their morning meeting. Harris is the priest at St. Paul's Chapel, with an office three blocks up Broadway at Trinity Church. He used to be an associate rector at our church, the Episcopal Church of the Advent, in Spartanburg, S.C.
As he was walking out of Trinity, the first plane hit the World Trade Center. He ran back inside, called his wife to say he was okay, put on his clerical collar (to gain access to the site) and headed the three blocks to the tower to see if he could help. The second plane hit, and he and another priest ducked for cover, as glass and burning debris flew everywhere.
They rushed back to Trinity, and soon realized the need to evacuate the child-care center. As they raced down the street, carrying the children toward the Staten Island Ferry, the tower collapsed, engulfing them in a thick black cloud. Harris was talking to the 4-year-old girl he was carrying, trying to reassure her. She said, "I'm okay, you just keep running!"
Early the next morning, Harris walked from his apartment toward St. Paul's. He assumed it had been demolished but hoped at least to retrieve the first Seal of the United States, which hung inside. He saw the spire rising through the dust and couldn't believe that at least part of the church was still standing. When he got there, he discovered that the chapel had not suffered any damage. Windows on all the buildings around it had been blown out, but St. Paul's just stood there. Its cemetery was a foot deep in twisted computer monitors, mini-blinds and other debris, and a several-hundred-year-old sycamore in the rear had been uprooted, taking the brunt of the blast. (Harris is saving the trunk to carve into a baptismal font.) Inside the chapel, he said, it just felt "electric"; no damage at all.
That's when he knew he had a mission.
He got on the phone to solicit food donations and volunteers, and by Sept. 16, they were lined up on the sidewalk outside St. Paul's serving barbecue to the NYPD and FDNY workers. They served 2,000 meals that day.
In the next few days, the health department tried many times to shut down Harris's program, but no police officers would enforce it. Harris, meanwhile, was trying to get a structural engineer to assure him that St. Paul's was sound before moving the relief operation inside. He finally got the green light right after being ordered by the city to shut down, so they moved the relief effort inside and called it "church potluck suppers" (three times a day!) to avoid the health department. Every time the health department did come, Harris noted, one inspector was shoving thermometers into the burgers and telling the workers to pack up, while other health department officials were chowing down on the food.
Since then, St. Paul's has operated full time as a relief site for firefighters, police, ironworkers, etc. It is open 24 hours a day, providing breakfast, lunch, dinner and chili or soup throughout the night. Lunch consists of sandwiches donated and delivered by a local deli, Eli's. Dinner is brought in by various restaurants, including the Waldorf-Astoria.
There are round-the-clock chiropractors, podiatrists, massage therapists (all volunteer) and stations with medicines, warm clothing, new socks and boots. Coffee and tea and several coolers of other beverages are always available. The pews are stocked with blankets, pillows and stuffed animals for napping.
A short service is held in the chapel at noon, and musicians from the Juilliard School come in several times a day to play. Sometimes a firefighter or police officer in dusty, damp gear sits down at the piano and plays for a few minutes.
We arrive in New York by bus about 6 p.m. on Feb. 18. There are 27 of us, divided into two shifts. I'm on day shift, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. We dispense food, man the supply tables, man the gate and do "beautification." Beautification involves keeping the hundreds of candles lit in the chapel and arranging flowers, all left outside in memory of those killed.
The gate people explain to the public why they aren't allowed into the church and tell them about what we are doing. They also have a counter to keep track of how many ground zero workers come each day (we average about 1,500). The gate people also hand out markers and pens to people who stop to look at the memorials outside. The entire fence of St. Paul's is an "official" memorial site and is covered with flags, pictures, candles, flowers and tributes. We put up blank canvases for people to write their thoughts on, and replace them as they fill. The old ones are brought inside to be archived. More than 300 completely filled canvases are folded upstairs in St. Paul's now.
One day as I'm working on the gate, a couple in their fifties looking at the memorials seem especially sad. The woman approaches me and says: "We just received the urn with our son's ashes today. Would it be okay if we came in and said a prayer?" I don't care what the sign says about "Emergency Workers Only." I just say, "Absolutely." Mother Helen and a priest take them in and they all hold hands in one of the pews as the couple tell their story. One priest keeps removing his glasses and wiping his eyes. Their grief fills the chapel.
The entire inside of the sanctuary is plastered with artwork, letters and banners from around the country and the world. The firefighters get such a kick out of reading the letters on the walls and on the backs of the pews. Everything is saved, archived by the New-York Historical Society. Some of the workers sit in the pews and write letters back to children whose addresses are on the papers or drawings. One that stuck in my head: a clumsy drawing of two towers, with a chubby airplane approaching; on the bottom was written, "UH OH, LOOKS LIKE TRUBLE."
A professionally done poster, titled "The Bravest of the Brave," contains the names of all the firefighters who died on Sept. 11. A firefighter stands under it. "I really like that poster," he says; "do you know where I can get one?" I don't, but the shift leader tells me that there is a Web address on the bottom of the poster. As I write it down, the firefighter says softly, more to himself than to me: "I can't find my brother. I can't find my brother." He looks at me and just murmurs a name. I look at the poster and the name jumps out at me immediately. I point to it. "That was your brother? You lost your brother?" I want to rip the poster down and give it to him on the spot. But all I can do is to hold his arm for a minute. His eyes fill with tears and then he walks out.
Some nights after work we go to an old Irish pub called McSorley's. The first group from our church, in November, met an elderly bartender there, Tommy Nolan. After they'd been at the pub a few nights, the bartend found out that they were here to work at ground zero and would throw people out to clear a table for them. They tried to get him to come by St. Paul's, but he declined. "I'm not much of a churchgoing man," he said. But on the morning they were to leave, he showed up at St. Paul's in coat and tie.
The fatigue of many of the ground zero workers is so sharply etched into their faces that they look like stone. Others seem remarkably untouched and cheerful. Some want to talk. Some obviously do not.
When we hear a lot of beepers going off, that generally means remains have been found and many of the firefighters leave for the site. They have a flag and a small ceremony each time. The crews are now working six stories underground. They expect to be working for at least two more months.
I'm given a thick chunk of window glass by a firefighter named Stan. They are not supposed to give you anything; nothing is to be removed from the site, but they just need to share. The most amazing thing to me is how appreciative they are of us. When I try to say to them, "No, thank you. You are the one doing the incredible job," they wave it off. "We're just doing our job. We're paid to be here," they say. "You don't have to be here, yet you came all this way to help."
But for me working up here is a privilege, a gift.
Lyndon Harris said it best when responding to the person who asked when St. Paul's would get back to being a real church. "I don't think we've ever been, nor will ever be, any closer to a 'real church' than we are right now," he said.
Amen to that.