NYC Part 9: St. Paul’s Chapel

Everything seemed to be going to schedule on September 11, 2001, as I finished my morning high school classes and went home for lunch. However, that all changed as soon as I turned on my TV, and without it really sinking in as to what was happening, I watched the news recap as United Airlines Flight 175 flew into the South Tower of the World Trade Center.

The older I get, the more my long-term memory seems to be falter, but the events of that day will forever remain engraved in my brain.

I remember returning to school in a daze, entering my third period English class, and seeing the stunned and horrified faces of my classmates. It was obvious that the whole school had found out about the attacks by that point. My English teacher, Ms. Sengupta, wheeled in a TV so we could all watch the news.

I remember not being able to breathe, trying to stifle the sobs that I could feel welling up deep inside. I remember the destruction, the flames, the black pillar of smoke that rose from the Towers. I remember the news reports showing the ash-covered streets and seeing civilians and members of the NYPD and NYFD running around like ants trying to escape an ant hill that had just been stepped on.

To this day I can still see the second plane as it collides with 2 WTC. Like a nightmare, it sometimes replays on loop in my head. This internal news reel was playing incessantly as I walked into St. Paul’s Chapel, the church located directly across the street from the former World Trade Center. Miraculously, the church was unharmed by the attack, being saved by a huge tree that sheltered the building from debris. Not even a window was broken.

In the aftermath of the attacks, St. Paul’s became a safe haven for emergency workers. In the months following it became a home base for volunteers who worked around the clock to provide respite for firefighters, police officers, construction workers, and anyone else working the site. Twelve years later, it now acts as a memorial, museum and still-functioning church, housing items that have been preserved from those dark days.

This was my third visit to St. Paul’s, but despite my numerous visits, it doesn’t get easier the more you go. In fact, this was by far the hardest visit I’ve yet to pay to the church. It could have been because I was alone and without someone with me, the energy of the building took over; maybe it was because it was raining and the dreary weather had already lowered my spirits; or it could even have been due to the high level of emotional and personal change that I had gone through over the past year, and continue to experience as I try to find my way. Whatever the reason, during this visit I allowed myself to cry openly.

This altar is what finally broke me down. I’ve seen it on each visit, but coming back to it almost felt like I was visiting the graves of friends.

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St. Paul’s has such a long and proud history in its own right, dating back to 1766 and belonging to the Parish of Trinity Church, it’s “bigger brother” located just a few blocks south. However, its role as a beacon of hope in the days following 9/11 will probably be its legacy for decades to come.

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