My children first heard about The Little Chapel that Stood in our homeschool study of the last 500 years. Beginning with the present century, Ground Zero and St. Paul’s Chapel stands as one of the most significant places of modern pilgrimage and remembrance. So when my girls heard that we were going to the New York City area for a concert trip, they begged me to visit the chapel they had read about which had captured their hearts.
St. Paul’s Chapel is the oldest church building in Manhattan and one of the few colonial structures to survive the Great Fire of 1776. While its mother church, the famous Trinity Wall Street burned to the ground, volunteers somehow saved their beloved chapel from suffering a similar fate. The resilience of this little house of prayer proved itself again on September 11, 2001; while many finer and newer structures around it collapsed under the maelstrom of rack and ruin, this beacon of hope suffered not a bone of its body to be broken, not a single pane of glass shattered. Most attribute this miraculous survival to the grace of God and to the protection of an ancient and overarching chestnut tree in the northwest corner of the church’s sizable graveyard. Like another Treebeard the Ent, but acting much more hastily to avert the destruction by Isengard, this chesnut died absorbing the impact of the falling debris. A bronze memorial now stands next to Trinity Church in honor of the actions of this brave botanical.
But I marvel the most at what St. Paul’s has become in the 13 years since that inauspicious beginning to our present century and millennium. It epitomizes the motto of my faith-based tour company, that tourists find themselves strangely drawn to become pilgrims. On this chilly, overcast day in the middle of March, for instance, the streets around ground zero are swarming not just with pedestrians, but with spiritual seekers. They stop to stare and wonder; they whisper words of prayer and pause in hushed silence around the mass grave where two mighty giants of finance and worldliness once stood; and almost all of them file in and out of St. Paul’s to pray, to remember, to look for answers, but most of all to lie in the arms of Him who bid us take up the light yoke of humility and thereby find rest for our weary souls. Just like the thousands of volunteers who after the tragedy used the church pews to catch a few hours of shut-eye before their next 12 hour shift of digging through the rubble. Just like the firemen who left their shoes on the church fence in haste to get to the burning towers in time, many of them never to return. And just like the countless pilgrims since who have selflessly given of themselves to aid their fellow man. In this city that never sleeps in its undying devotion to things that pass away, may we make eternal the memory of such bravery and devotion. And may we, even here in America, learn the ancient and Christian art of keeping shrines of remembrance that connect us with our true home in heaven. Amen.