THE MIRACLE CHURCH OF GROUND ZERO
By JP Ronald
As we remember and take silence to the events of eighteen years ago, on September 11, 2001, for those alive at the time it was a defining moment in our lives. The World War II generation it was Pearl Harbor, the Baby Boomers is was the sad John Kennedy’s assassination, and for those of us referred to as “Gen-X” it was 911. We all remember that day as vivid as yesterday. I was 28 years old at the time, four years out of Ohio State University, and I young engineer for a large company in Cleveland Ohio when I first heard the news form a cubical mate about a plane hitting one of the twin towers. Nobody got work done that day as we employees congregated in the company’s large cafeteria, to watch the wall-size projection television as news unfolded in real time. It was surreal to watch buildings that tall just collapse, I have my engineering degree and I’m asking myself “can the laws of physics, cause an entire building to do that?” Of course, we all know the answer, but the shock to see it was raw.
I also remember when I heard about a plane crash outside of Pittsburgh PA, my hometown, where my mother and sister still lived (my father passed away in 1997). Not sure exactly where “near Pittsburgh” meant I attempted many a call to no avail, as phone lines were jammed, both landline and cellular. Eventually I did get through a day later, to learn the plane went down in a farm field in rural Somerset County, about an hour-and-half east of Pittsburgh via the Pennsylvania Turnpike. This is Shanksville and today that ground is the Flight 93 Memorial, interestingly my wife and her family (who in 2001 had yet to meet) are from that region of Pennsylvania. Then of course there is the plane crash into the Pentagon, it seemed as if America was coming undone.
But this is not about me, but a little-known building at Ground Zero, that appeared to have a blessing on it, and very few people outside New York City know much about it, or the role it played during and after the Twin Towers collapsed. I am referring to a church building, known as Saint Paul’s Chapel. It is an Episcopal church and part of New York’s historical Holy Trinity Parish. It is currently located on a block bounded by Church Street, Vessey Street, Fulton Street, and Broadway. The World Trade Center plaza (a.k.a. Ground Zero) is just west and across Church Street, from this little but beautiful church. Built in 1766, it even predates the United States by ten years, and yet has indelible links to the nation’s history.
The National Cathedral, in Washington D.C., has often been referred to as “America’s Church,” since it is in the Nation’s capital, been frequented by presidents, congressmen and women, senators, and dignitaries. It has been the scene of important memorials, ceremonies, and remembrances, but little St Paul’s probably deserves this moniker far more.
As a devout Christian, I have been fascinated by St Paul’s since first hearing about it by, Messianic Jewish Rabbi and Pastor Jonathan Cahn, in his book The Harbinger. Jonathan went into much more detail about the symbolism of St Paul’s Chapel to America’s wellbeing, fate, and its apparent blessing on this church building, which is beyond this blog scope, but I will now delve more into the church’s history. When built it was surrounded by farmland on lower Manhattan, just on the outskirts of New York City hub (a lot has changed in 250 years). Now the oldest surviving structure in Manhattan, it is both a New York and National Historic Landmark, and is considered one of the oldest continuously used public buildings in the United States. This church appears to have God’s protective hand around it, because it has had its brushes with is destruction and trauma, and yet remained unscathed through the worst that happened around it.
Saint Paul’s cemetery yard served as the parade and mustering location for New York’s Heart-of-Oaks volunteer militia in 1775, with many of its recruits from what is now Columbia University, and include Alexander Hamilton. Heart-of-Oaks volunteers played an important role during the Revolutionary War, with many of its members involved in the Battle for Long Island and Manhattan, under the overall command of General George Washington, and this would not be the first time Washington would leave his mark on St Paul’s. The little churched managed to survive the battle and retreat of Continental Forces from New York, and the Great New York City Fire of 1776 while under British Occupation.
Following the ratification of the US Constitution, New York served as the nation’s capital for a few years, and on April 30, 1789 after Washington’s inaugural swearing in, he led his cabinet, and the 1st Congress down Broadway in a procession to St Paul’s Chapel for a prayer vigil, for God’s blessing on the infant nation. During the years that New York served as the first capital, Washington went to services regularly at St. Paul’s and the pew used by the Washington family is still present, with an 18th century oil painting of the 1782 Great Seal of The United States hanging over it.
In more recent times, St Paul’s Chapel, once again personified the American spirit in the aftermath and chaos of September 11, 2001. As the World Trade Center towers collapsed spilling, dust, debris, glass, steel, and concrete throughout lower Manhattan, this little church was “eyewitness” for the whole event and what followed. On that day many of the properties surrounding the World Trade Center Plaza suffered sever damage or outright destruction. Unfortunately, another Christian house of worship, St Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, built in 1832, was completely crushed by debris from the South Tower (the church is being rebuilt, but its reconstruction, including a shrine have been the center of controversial issues with local and state authorities ever since attempts to get the permits to rebuild the church started. St Nicholas’s is its own story worth telling but is beyond the scope of this blog piece). As for St Paul’s Chapel, that day, with all that reigned down, not a single bit of damage befell the structure, not even the impressive stain-glass windows were broken. A large chunk of steel, with a trajectory towards St Paul’s, was miraculously spared when the flaying chunk of metal impacted a sycamore on the property. That sycamore has since been referred to as the “miracle sycamore” and its root system (all that remains of the tree) was cast in bronze to preserve it. Is this little church still under God’s protective hand? I certainly believe so, but that is what faith is all about.
In the aftermath and cleanup that followed, St Paul’s served as a place of refuse, reflection, and prayer. Volunteers worked twelve-hour shifts 24 hours a day, to help the first responders and clean-up crews sift through rubble for survivors and clean out Ground Zero. St Paul’s became a place for these magnificent heroes to take a break, grab some rest or sleep, get a good meal or cup of coffee, and seek out comfort and counseling. Many of the pews still retain the marks and stains from fire-fighters’ equipment. The fence on the property became a place for people to leave mementos and other items as a sort of ad hoc memorial, to which church officials have added up to 400 panels to hold all these remembrances. On December 21, 2001 Mayor Rudy Giuliani chose St Paul’s to give his farewell speech, when his final term was ending. Today besi