Last Thursday my wife and I went downtown to the National September 11 Memorial site. To get to it, we had to walk past St. Paul’s Chapel and Cemetery and my wife was interested in having a look around, so we went in. I’ve been there a few times before, but it was her first time. She remembered hearing about the chapel in the news and wanted to see it first-hand.
We walked through the cemetery first. She was impressed by how old the headstones are. I am too. It’s weird to see gravestones still erect for people that died in the 1760s next to so many buildings of modern construction. It’s so out of place. It’s nice to see that the chapel and the cemetery survived and weren’t torn down to build something new, especially in considering the important role the chapel played during the September 11th tragedy, when rescue and aid workers used the sanctuary as a place to rest and recover for a few hours before going back out to look for survivors again.
When you walk through the chapel, it’s hard to not be touched by the memorials set up around the outer edge, artifacts left behind by people looking for loved ones mixed in with older stuff, like George Washington’s pew and what is touted as the oldest painting of the seal of the United States, which looks more like a turkey than an eagle, probably due to influence from Benjamin Franklin, who wanted the national bird to be the turkey. On a side note, it’s good that he didn’t get his way, or else what would we eat on Thanksgiving? It would be a federal crime to roast our turkeys!
Seriously, though, on my previous trip I never really stopped to considering and think about the people in the photos set up on the alters, or the stuff that was moved inside from where it used to be posted on the fences around the church. It’s hard to stand there and think about the people, on an individual level, that died there that day. It’s easy when you’ve only got this vague idea in your head of some 3000 people. It’s harder when you look at the photos and wonder what their life was like and who they left behind. Who cried for them? What were there final moments like? How has the event changed the lives and world views of those closest to them?
The informational plaques were nice. It helped tell the story of the place. It explained why there are no pews left in the center of the building, and where all the patches on the priest’s garment (I forget the actual name of it) came from.
I thought the “Pilgrimage Altar” was especially interesting. Is St. Paul’s a site of pilgrimage now? It’s hard to think of it that way, in the same category as Canterbury, Santiago de Compostela, or Jerusalem. But perhaps it is a place of pilgrimage in a broader sense of the word. People were encouraged to leave behind thoughts and prayers for those who perished at the nearby Trade Center site, which they did, covering the altar in notes.
St. Paul’s is an important site of remembrance that has surpassed its role as a Christian church. It is now a site of tourism and pilgrimage for people of all faiths or no faith, to remember the loss suffered by so many on that day, to contemplate how the world changed, and maybe to hope for something better in the future.