15 years after 9/11, standing up to the scourge of terrorism
As Americans and much of the world paused on Sunday to remember the day 15 years ago when New York’s giant twin towers were felled by terrorists, I recalled the tiny church that stood nearby unscathed, though fire and brimstone rained down around it.
I first learned of St. Paul’s Chapel at a holiday party several years ago hosted by author Robert Lawrence Holt, my neighbor in Cardiff-by-the-Sea, California.
His fellow author Arline Curtiss introduced us to a children’s book she had just published, an illustrated work meant to help kids cope with the horrors of 9/11. The book tells the story of St. Paul’s Chapel, the tiny Episcopal Church that was built in 1766, less than 100 yards from where the towers would later rise.
She proceehhded to read The Little Chapel That Stood, aloud to the gathering, and most of us were left mistyeyed. The book describes how firefighters arriving at the scene, before rushing into doom, put on their fire boots just outside the chapel and hung their shoes on the iron fence.
Those shoes remained unclaimed after the towers collapsed. They hung still as surviving firefighters sought solace inside the chapel, and they stayed on the fence long afterward, a haunting reminder of the brave lives lost.
The chapel, which also survived the Great Fire of New York in 1776, proved to be an impenetrable sanctuary again on 9/11. When brick and mortar collapsed that fateful day, the little church suffered no damage — not even when part of a steel girder from the falling towers hurtled toward it.
When I visited New York City again for the first time in decades, I went to St. Paul’s. Just inside the doorway is a shrine to firefighters that has grown over the years, and you can see the old wooden pew where George Washington, the first US president, once sat during services. The calm in the heart of the chapel belies the fury that once raged outside.
In the corner is a small gift shop, and there, on the counter, was a tidy stack of The Little Chapel That Stood.
As I told the shop attendant how the author read the book aloud that night, and my eyes teared up at the memory of the powerfully uplifting tale, she offered a box of tissues, saying they were kept on hand because visitors often wept.
Curtiss’ story of selfless bravery reminded me that wanton destruction and the taking of lives — specialties of the terrorist — require no special qualities.
But it takes character, and even courage, to build something that will last, like the chapel that stood or the spirit of a people. Those, it seems, cannot be destroyed.
McKenna Thomas of Philadelphia pauses to read memorial ribbons tied to the exterior wall of St Paul’s Chapel on the morning of the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in Lower Manhattan.