Among the tragedies in New York City on September 11, 2001, a small beacon of hope remained intact across from the destruction of the Twin Towers—Saint Paul’s Chapel. The history of the church itself is remarkable, but for nearly a year after the 9/11 tragedy, it became a sanctuary for thousands. St. Paul’s has a deep connection to the events of 9/11 and has become far greater than just a historic landmark.
Built in 1766, St. Paul’s is Manhattan’s oldest surviving church building. Land for the church was granted by the queen of Great Britain to expand the services for its growing congregation. At the time, New York City was still under British rule and St. Paul’s became the tallest building in New York when it was completed.
In 1776, a great fire sparked by the Revolutionary War destroyed nearly half of the buildings in New York City. Luckily, St. Paul’s survived with the help of church members who protected it from burning. The church continued to thrive after the war and became part of the rebirth of New York City. St. Paul’s long history includes many famous church members, such as America’s first president and war hero, George Washington.
Although small in size, the phenomenon of St. Paul’s following the September 11 attacks was nothing short of miraculous. The building hadn’t suffered any physical damage, with not even a single window broken. The building sat directly across the street from the World Trade Center yet survived unharmed. People started referring to it as “the little chapel that could.”
In the weeks that followed after the 9/11 attacks, the church provided round-the-clock relief to ground zero rescue and recovery workers. For nearly a year, hundreds of volunteers would serve meals, provide sleeping areas and hand out clothing and supplies to relief workers and other people in need. St. Paul’s became a refuge for the exhausted rescue workers who spent hours searching and removing debris. It was reported that more than 3,000 people came through the chapel in just the first three months after the 9/11 attacks.
People around the globe sent messages of love and encouragement that were displayed throughout the chapel for the workers to read. The wrought-iron fence around St. Paul’s was filled with flowers, photos, banners, posters, flags and letters as a makeshift memorial. These efforts continued until June of 2002, when a closing service was held at St. Paul’s for the workers and the church was reopened to the public.
Visitors at St. Paul’s Chapel today are able to view the many memorial banners that are still on display along with exhibits honoring the volunteer efforts after September 11.
Even 20 years later, the church still remains a symbol of healing and hope. Visitors are reminding us that true healing happens through community. Today, Saint Paul’s Chapel welcomes over one million visitors every year. For more information, visit https://trinitywallstreet.org/visit/st-pauls-chapel.