St. Paul’s Chapel: Witness to history

NYC's St. Paul's Chapel
NYC's St. Paul's Chapel 05:12

One Inaugural tradition had its start more than 200 years ago in the city that was our nation’s first capital. Mo Rocca takes us to the lower Manhattan church that’s a witness to history:

New York City, April 1789 -- the inaugural Inaugural. General George Washington takes the oath of office as the first President of the United States and then goes to St. Paul’s Chapel.

Rocca asked, “Do we know at all what George Washington prayed for that day?”

“No -- well, I do, ‘cause I swear I can feel it here,” said The Reverend Dr. William Lupfer, rector of Trinity Church, which includes St. Paul’s.

“I think he prayed for peace, for reconciliation. I can just feel it here. What else would he have done, right? No one prays for peace more than people who’ve been through war.”

The interior of St. Paul’s Chapel in Lower Manhattan. Built in 1766, it is the oldest surviving church in New York City. CBS News

Washington’s visit is just one milestone in the history of this Episcopal chapel, which recently celebrated its sestercentennial -- that’s 250 years of worship, service, and what seem like miracles.

In 1776, during the American Revolution, the Great Fire of New York destroyed one-third of the city. But a bucket brigade saved St. Paul’s.

Archivist Anne Petrimoulx show Rocca a fire bucket found up in the rafters of the church in 2009. “Perhaps this was one of the buckets that was used during the Great Fire of 1776.”

Petrimoulx says it’s unclear who started the fire, but the chapel’s British reverend had already made up his mind, as noted in the sermon he delivered the day after the fire.

“He is pretty squarely laying the blame for this on the patriots,” she said. “He thinks that this was sort of a slash-and-burn thing, because they were leaving and the British were coming in to occupy New York.”

Over the centuries, as downtown New York changed, St. Paul’s played host to a diversity of congregations.

And then, in 2001, St. Paul’s found itself right across the street from cataclysm.

But the “Chapel at Ground Zero,” as it came to be known, survived with only a broken window.

In the months after 9/11, it became a sanctuary for the grief-stricken and for weary Ground Zero recovery workers.

Left: A cloud of dust from one of the collapsing World Trade Center towers descends upon St. Paul’s Chapel on Sept. 11, 2001. The fence surrounding the church, a sanctuary for Ground Zero rescue workers, was covered with mementos from around the world. STAN HONDA, HENNY RAY ABRAMS/AFP/Getty Images

Vicar Phil Jackson says it’s the heartwarming and sometimes horrific stories of service and sacrifice in the “9/11 Chapel of Remembrance” that now attract more than a million visitors to St. Paul’s each year.

“One story that I heard is that the upper gallery was lined with Timberland boots that had been donated by the company,” Vicar Jackson said. “Because if you came to work here to do a shift at Ground Zero, by the end of your shift, the soles would’ve melted. So they just threw them away and then the next day would get another pair.”

And it’s in these two catastrophes -- 225 years apart -- that Rector Lupfer believes St. Paul’s finds its identity: “I think both of those events were enormously disorienting. And to be right next to it and survive, and then minister to the aftermath, has been sort of a horrible opportunity for us.

“And I think it informs us to be very intentional about bringing opposites together, and bringing disparate voices, and emotions, passions and feelings together.”

Which is why St. Paul’s hosts a Jewish congregation, and works with a neighboring Islamic community center.

“We’re good friends with them, sort of lay person-to-lay person,” said Rector Lupfer.

On Friday at St. John’s in Washington, President-elect Trump plans to worship before his inauguration -- a tradition that began at the chapel in New York City that’s been witness to the best and worst moments of our history.

Rocca asked, “Is it important that the incoming commander-in-chief worship on the day of his or her inauguration?”

Yes, said Rector Lupfer. “I think the commander-in-chief needs to be grounded, needs to start with their feet on the ground, and with humility. And there’s nothing more humbling than standing before God and admitting that.”

St. Paul’s Chapel in Lower Manhattan. CBS News

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