The Chapel That Stood: A Morning of Remembrance and Reconciliation at St. Paul’s Chapel

The Chapel That Stood: A Morning of Remembrance and Reconciliation at St. Paul’s Chapel


“It stood. Not a window broken.
Not a stone dislodged.
It stood when nothing else did.” 

– “St. Paul’s Chapel,” poem by J. Chester Johnson

September 11, 2015, 8 a.m. Stepping out of the Cortland St. subway stop onto Church Street, one looks directly at the newly-built Three World Trade Center. It seems like any other day in Lower Manhattan, with loud construction noise, police directing the traffic, businessmen in their suits hurrying down the street. Once you look more closely though, you realize that it’s not. There is too much police presence for a regular day, and it is not only businesswomen in the street, but also firemen in their dress uniforms, with white caps in their hands. They walk towards the entrance of the 9/11-memorial, where – like every year – the names of the nearly 3,000 victims of the terrorist attacks will be read.


Some of the firemen stop in front of Century 21. The department store has been transformed into a bigcolorful mural celebrating New York, and workers are just putting the last touch to it: a long white banner on street level. The firemen write down names of their fallen comrades on the banner, right next to a message that reads, “May God bless the U.S.A. on this 9/11 day.” It was written by Greg Packer, a retired highway maintenance worker from Huntington, NY, who wears a blue t-shirt depicting a big U.S. flag above his stone-washed jean shorts. Packer comes down here every year to honor the victims, and he feels that it has changed over time. “It’s improved,” he says. “Now you have a beautiful memorial that people can go to.”

8:20 a.m., a block down from Century 21 is the courtyard of St. Paul’s Chapel. The Episcopal chapel from the 18th century is located directly across the street from Ground Zero, but survived the terror attacks without so much as a broken window. In the eight months following 9/11, “the chapel that stood” served as a relief center for the recovery workers. St. Paul’s is part of Trinity Wall Street, and their common red flag flutters in the strong wind at the entrance gate. From there, two winding paths lead up to the chapel, through green grass still wet from yesterday’s rain and past old gravestones that have sunk into the earth over time. Right outside the chapel white, yellow and pink flowers are arranged around a bigger and newer gravestone that reads, “They are in peace.” One can still hear the construction noise and the occasional police sirens from here, but the tall trees filter the sound and create a bubble of peacefulness amidst the noisy surroundings. Only a handful of people are here at this hour, among them TV crews doing a sound check and a tall African-American pastor who wears a colorful striped vest above his black clerical shirt. He drinks from a coffee cup that wishes “for a world peace.”

A little to the side, hidden behind a piece of scaffolding, stands Devin Harford. The blond advertising agent wears a black velvet dress and a delicate gold cross around her neck. “Every year when 9/11 comes around it feels like everyone should stop and pay their respects,” she says. “It feels almost wrong to just go to the office like any normal day.” Harford is originally from Maryland, and moved to New York just a couple of months after the attacks. She has come to St. Paul’s Chapel to pay remembrance. “My husband was a first responder down here,” Harford explains, and starts crying. “It’s okay. He is still with us and in good health,” she says while looking for a tissue in her bag. “But those many people who are not,” she pauses for a second and then continues, “It’s one of these days, you know. It’s the right thing to do, to pay respects.”

IMG_59708:46 a.m., at precisely the time when the first plane crashed into the North Tower 14 years ago, Reverend William Lupfer, the rector of Trinity Wall Street, rings the Bell of Hope, surrounded by a group of around 50 people. The bell was given to New York City by London in 2002, and has stood in St. Paul’s churchyard ever since. Lupfer rings the bell four times, five strikes each, the traditional New York firefighter salute to the fallen.

“It was just beautiful,” says Leslie Porter, an animal rights advocate from Maryland, who shows her patriotism in the stitched American flag covering a third of her white blouse. “Bells have been used for centuries throughout the world as a way to send messages, and I think perhaps in this case we can all hope that our messages of remembrance go to all of those who perished that day. Who just got up like all of us did that morning, and little did they know that was the last day they would have.”

9:45 a.m., about 150 people have gathered inside St. Paul’s Chapel to attend today’s “Service of Reconciliation.” In the last decade the chapel has become a place of pilgrimage. Pictures and mementos of lost loved ones are displayed throughout the room. Near the altar, visitors can express themselves on yellow post-it notes; one reads, “I miss you Grandpa” in a child’shandwriting. The chapel was more crowded for the tenth anniversary, according to Trinity’s media staff, but first responders and their families still come back here every year.

The visitors are greeted by J. Chester Johnson. The retiree wears a grey jacket, a black polo shirt and a white hat that he has taken off while inside the church. Fourteen years ago, Johnson was trapped for several hours in his downtown office after the collapse of the South Tower. In the following months, he spent almost every weekend volunteering at St. Paul’s Chapel, “to help the recovery workers who were experiencing hell only a few yards away,” he explains. The way he talks makes it seem as if it happened just yesterday. “But then I realized over time that what had happened was that this experience of being here and helping where I could, actually was a process of healing me in dealing with 9/11.” Johnson still comes here often and his poem “St. Paul’s Chapel” (quoted at the beginning of this article) is printed on memento cards for tourists.


10.00 a.m., the service starts with prayers and hymns; the visitors are seated in a half circle. They include eight police officers who are posted in the neighborhood for security purposes, but who have come inside to pay their respects. Reverend David W. Peters, an Army  chaplain from Texas who served as a Marine in his late teens, gets up and walks towards the pulpit. His sermon, “Learning War and Reconciliation,” was selected among a dozen submissions from people of all faiths, and tells his personal story from an angry soldier deployed to Afghanistan to a man finding forgiveness. “Being a warrior is like being a priest. With its own vestments, rituals and beliefs. […] And, when I think about it, we really didn’t learn to do war, we learned to be war,” he preaches passionately to the distant sound of police sirens. Dressed in a white clerical shirt matching the white pulpit he is standing in, he continues, “And Jesus made it clear. You don’t do forgiveness. You have to be forgiveness. […] They thought me to be war, [now] we have to learn to be Reconciliation.”

Every once and again during the service, the rumbling of the subway underneath the chapel makes the entire floor vibrate, visibly upsetting a couple of visitors, among them a coastguard officer in dress uniform who is fighting tears. A young man, who looks like a hippie and proclaims himself to be the newborn Jesus, hands her rosary beads and thanks her for her service. A baby in the first row brings smiles to those seated around him, and a group of priests starts giving communion. On this special day, St. Paul’s welcomes everyone to come forward – whether Christian or not – to receive either a piece of bread or a simple blessing. The service ends with the hymn “Healing River of the Spirit,” sung in procession to organ music. The commemorative music mixes with construction and traffic noise once the doors of the chapel have been opened. Another day in Lower Manhattan.

About author

Lilly Maier
Lilly Maier 2 posts

I am a student and freelance journalist. Originally from Europe, I switch between writing in English and German. I recently moved to New York where I am a Fulbright grantee attending the Magazine Journalism program at New York University. I hold a Bachelor’s degree in history from the University of Munich. In 2013, I interned at, the Pulitzer Prize-winning fact-checking site in Washington, D.C. An article I wrote about an Obamacare chain-email was PolitiFact’s 2nd most read article of the year and shared over 50,000 times on Facebook. Right now, I am working for the German news-magazine FOCUS Online as well as (a German site for history-lovers) and Die Stadtspionin (“Cityspottergirl”). In the spring of 2015, my first book was published: “Mach’s einfach!,” a guide to the vibrant Do-It-Yourself-scene in Vienna. In the past, I have written for a number of American, German and Austrian magazines and newspapers, including The Huffington Post, News, Presse and Kurier. In 2007, I founded a bimonthly European youth magazine, Schnipsel (“papercuts”), that was awarded funding by the European Union, and won a first prize in the prestigious school magazine contest of the German magazine Spiegel. Besides writing, I have a deep passion for history. For my thesis, I interviewed several Holocaust survivors around the United States, and was subsequently awarded with the University of Munich’s “Prize for Outstanding Student Research.“

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