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Trinity's bronze doors swing open again

By Nathan Brockman
2001-266
9/20/2001
[Episcopal News Service]  The displaced members of Trinity Church, at the corner of Wall Street and Broadway, will reclaim their Gothic building slowly, guided by the step-by-step easing of restrictions on access to lower Manhattan which will mark the area's return from hell. A first important step was taken at 10 a.m. September 19. As the church bell's struck the hour, Trinity's grand bronze doors were opened and the Financial District's new community--emergency workers dazed by their round-the-clock work with piles of twisted steel and rubble--was welcomed inside.

Since the attacks on the World Trade Center, the church had been sealed off. The thin wire fence erected in front of Trinity, which looked as though it came from the perimeter of a school playground, seemed more imposing than the thick black iron bars of her original fence and gate. The previous Sunday's Eucharist had been moved to the Shrine of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, on State Street a few blocks away.

That arrangement was slated to continue until the public was allowed access west of Broadway, but the reopening September 19 enabled firemen, members of the New York Police Department, soldiers, ambulance crews and others to enter the quietness of Trinity Church to relax, pray and seek spiritual and psychological healing.

Members of the Trinity family responded to the attacks by helping traditional rescue workers with their own brand of 'it's-my-job' understated heroics: aiding the safe escape of preschool children, counseling firefighters at 'Ground Zero,' saying last rites over body bags, performing triage at Liberty Plaza before the towers went down. But for the wider community, the most potent and widely resounding symbol of a church's congregation is its building.

Now that symbol is alive again, and so is the very practical and difficult business of counseling the grieving, the overworked, and the traumatized.

Down Broadway

The Rev. Daniel Paul Matthews, Trinity's rector, and the Rev. Samuel Johnson Howard, vicar, led a crew of building managers and clergy down the center of a sunny Broadway to Trinity, greeting somber, stern members of the National Guard and police. 'Thank you,' 'God bless you,' the priests said over and over again. 'We're glad you're here.'

A small group waited outside the church to observe the symbolic re-opening of the doors from inside. At 9:55 a.m., sunlight began finding its way down the channel of Wall Street, striking the left hand side of the church and the stone molding surrounding the large doors. The sun moved rapidly over the doors, nearly reaching their full breadth when the church bells began to ring. 'The bells are right; the clock is wrong,' said Owen Burdick, Trinity's choirmaster, pointing up to the mistimed clock. A police helicopter flew overhead and there was the sound of movement from behind the big doors. A latch turned, and Matthews, Howard, and two members of Trinity's building management team, Jim Doran and Michael Borrero, emerged.

'We are so thrilled to be welcoming in the community,' said Matthews. 'That is why we are here. We are open for prayer, meditation, healing, and counseling.'

The church will be open to all allowed to enter the city's restricted zone, both those working in the Financial District and the rescue workers. Priests, both Trinity's staff and volunteers, will be inside the church 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for the duration of the crisis.

'Once the fences come down,' said Matthews, the church will be open to all. Later, he reflected that it was 'exhilarating to open the bronze doors up-the sunlight just flowed down Wall Street. It was a magical moment.'

Spiritual center

From the church steps, in the sunlight, Howard described Trinity in these words:

'This place has always been the spiritual center of downtown Manhattan.'

The parish has existed for more than 300 years. For many years, its 28-storey spire was the tallest building in Manhattan. In the 19th century it could be seen from afar by approaching ships. Among famous former parishioners have been Captain Kidd and members of New York's Bleecker family, many of whom are buried in her vaults. Alexander Hamilton is buried in the churchyard.

As Wall Street grew, the spire became dwarfed by its giants and eventually by the World Trade Center itself. Now the building stands facing the secular capital of the capitalist world, looking down the narrow shaft of street between skyscrapers, past the New York Stock Exchange towards the East River.

As Wall Street grew, the parish retained its first-come foothold through a many-tiered effort at community and worldwide outreach. Messages streaming into the home email accounts of displaced Trinity staff since the attacks include notes from current and former recipients of Trinity grants--many from the African continent.

For many decades, nearly all of Trinity's parishioners traveled from other parts of the city, or even from out of state, to join Sunday services. But as mid-town Manhattan has grown as an office district and the downtown area has revived as a residential neighborhood, increasing numbers of parishioners have come from within the boundaries of the parish.

A shelter

On September 11, the church building became a shelter for a group of about 15 people after two commercial airliners slammed into buildings One and Two of the World Trade Center complex, just a few blocks away. Some were there specifically to pray. They were led by the Rev. Stuart Hoke, executive assistant to the rector, who had crossed a pedestrian bridge spanning Trinity Place from the church's office building. People prayed in audible whispers.

Hoke had just begun to sing, 'O God Our Help In Ages Past,' when a terrible rumble shook the granite church. The lights flickered and went out, and when the rumble ceased, the stained glass, once brilliant in the bright blue day, was dim.

'I thought, hey, I'm a spiritual guy, so I came to Trinity Church,' said one man, who sat for much of the time as impassively as the church in a far corner near the sacristy. A woman went from person to person asking, 'Have you found Jesus?'

The group in the church waited for an hour and a half, as smoke and dust clogged the entrances and exits, the upper reaches of the tall nave and the basement. When the smoke cleared from the entranceway, they left.

Taking stock

In interviews September 19, Matthews said it was 'a miracle' that the church remained structurally unchanged. He had been particularly concerned that the spire might fall. (When subway tunnels were dug underneath Broadway, the church had begun to lean until engineers arranged the proper support.)

As he spoke, clergy made their way inside and a swarm of workers cleaned the pews with cloths and swept and vacuumed the church floors. The electricity was on. The stained glass behind the altar had resumed its brilliance. 'There will be 60-70 workers,' said Dr. Matthews. 'We're not going to stint the cleaning.'

Touring the churchyard, he told accompanying television crews: 'The presence of God in people's lives is far more real today than it has ever been.' He continued: 'Trinity's mission in the past few years has been to reconnect people with their spirituality. This event has people asking, 'What's it all about?' People are getting back to the basic questions. The mission has just been enhanced.'

In front of some gravestones were little piles of debris and rubble. A worker was loading them into black garbage bags and using a wheelbarrow to take them to a growing pile of about 50 bags.

Earlier in the day, clergy had stopped at St. Paul's, just across Church Street from the World Trade Center, where many gravestones were toppled and cut into pieces. Charred office papers littered the churchyard.

Inside the church, there was surprisingly little damage, considering the proximity to the devastation across the street. Delicate chandeliers dangled from the ceiling like precious diamond earrings.

St. Paul's was being used as a relief center for emergency workers. A police officer was sleeping in the second to front pew. Another was putting his equipment belt back on--it thudded heavily on the wooden pew--and shuffled wearily over to end-to-end tables, where bagels, coffee, and pink Dunkin' Donuts boxes lay. Next to one of the church's pillars were stacked boxes of apples. Just inside the porch were medical supplies, and outside stood the grills on which burgers and hot dogs were prepared at meal times.