Ghosts of Lower Manhattan – St. Paul’s Chapel
Since 2001, as the official WTC Memorial was debated, planned, and constructed, St. Paul’s Chapel served as a de facto house of commemoration and remembrance.
Built in 1764, it is the oldest active church in the city – Two and a half centuries is not a terribly impressive lifespan in most places. However, for it to have survived unfazed in New York, whose physical past is most often deleted, is something of a miracle.
It was built when New York was little more than a village at the very bottom of a wild and rocky island – an outpost on the very edge of the known European world.
– In 1776, a great fire (possibly set by patriots fleeing the town upon the retreat of Washington after the Battle of Brooklyn), destroyed as much as a quarter of the town’s structures- including the iconic Trinity Church. (rebuilt in the 1840’s)
Somehow the fire completely passed over the chapel. The area surrounding St. Paul’s remained charred for the duration of the American Revolution.
When Manhattan burned again in the 1800’s, the church was again spared.
In 2001, the Twin Towers collapsed across the street, but only an old sycamore tree in the churchyard took damage.
In the weeks following the 9/11 tragedy, St. Paul’s was a place of succor – giving recovery workers spiritual strength and beds to rest upon. Artifacts from that time fill the ancient building- firefighter helmets, prayer cards, and homemade banners of encouragement and remembrance sent from across the world.
St. Paul’s is something of a living ghost. Next to the pew where George Washington prayed before his inauguration sits an array of patches of fire departments whose men and women sacrificed safety and even life.
St. Paul’s and its Colonial-era graves have thoroughly watched the city grow around it. Somewhere in its spirit, it must recall the unpaved, muddy, filth-ridden streets, the wood-fronted houses, red-coated British soldiers, the rich, poor, the glorious, and the ragged.
It must remember the mighty skyscrapers that, in its neighborhood, began their thrilling rise a century ago.
Surrounded by the anonymous, frenetic masses of modernity, it must remember the close-knit village that hosted it- a New York when everyone was a small-town neighbor.
Today, St. Paul’s stands quietly, completely surrounded by massive towers, including those of the resurrecting World Trace Center. In its yard, the worn, decaying headstones of the first New Yorkers bear mute witness to the passing of generations they helped to define.
If only the graves could rise and see what has become of their village. If they walked the streets of Lower Manhattan, I’m sure their minds would be totally blown. – Absolutely nothing recognizable remains- except the street names, and their layout.
But I like to imagine that they’d be happy to know that at least one thing they built is still left behind- standing in modest pride.
Posted on November 13, 2011, in NYC past, NYC present, Uncategorized and tagged chapel, colonial, financial district, history, landmark, lower manhattan, new york, new york city, nyc, st. paul's chapel. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.