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George Washington prayed here. He attended a thanksgiving service at this elegant Georgian stone chapel, with its soaring steeple and classical portico, on the day of his inauguration at nearby Federal Hall, and he worshipped here during the two years New York served as the nation’s capital. Washington’s pew, with a painting of the Great Seal of the United States above, is still pointed out to visitors to this last remaining Colonial-era church in Manhattan.

St. Paul’s Chapel, on Broadway in Lower Manhattan, is steeped in history; it is, in fact, the oldest public building in continuous use in New York City. It was constructed in 1766 as a so-called “chapel-of-ease” for parishioners of Trinity Church, which stands a bit farther downtown, also on Broadway. Today, the two churches are one stop apart on the subway: It’s Fulton Street for St. Paul’s and Wall Street for Trinity.

St. Paul’s also has a place in more recent history: It stands directly across from where the World Trade Center once stood. In the months after September 11, 2001, the chapel became a refuge for police officers, firemen, and other workers, staffing counselors, and massage therapists around the clock for the weary workers. The wrought-iron fence that surrounds the churchyard became an impromptu memorial to those who died. It is, therefore, not surprising that there were as many tourists as parishioners entering St. Paul’s on Sunday, February 21, as the 10:00 a.m. Holy Eucharist service drew near.

Visitors might first notice the striking sculpture that hangs in the apse, directly above the chapel’s ornately carved wooden altar. Designed by Pierre L’Enfant, the architect of Washington, D.C., “Glory” shows Mount Sinai amid white clouds, with the two black tablets of the commandments coming down in rays of golden light—a striking contrast to the chapel’s overall pastel palette of pink and blue. They also might notice the tattered NYFD uniform that hangs limply over a pew at the back of the nave, or the other mementos of September 11 that have been placed around the perimeter.

The pews, for the most part, are gone; Washington’s remains to indicate what once was here. The pews were not stolen by a thief in the night, explained the Rev. Daniel Simons, as he began the service. They were removed and replaced by moveable wooden chairs to make the space more flexible and to enable the chapel to experiment with different arrangements for worship. On this Sunday the chairs were arranged in rows of three on either side of the main aisle. Instead of facing east, toward the altar, however, the rows of chairs faced one another across the aisle. A freestanding altar and ambo were placed at the back of the nave.

Throughout the service, which lasted approximately an hour, the congregation faced itself across the aisle or turned toward the narthex at the western end of the chapel—the principal entrance to the chapel in the eighteenth century, and the end nearest to Ground Zero. The Rev. Simons explained that facing the doors helps to remind us that the world is waiting outside. Structuring the worship space so that movement toward the altar means movement toward the door, he said, forces us to remember that we are Christians for the world. Despite the Rev. Simons’ explanation, some might think it a waste to give up the use of a lovely chancel—to trade L’Enfant’s imposing “Glory” as a backdrop for the service for a giant poster hanging from the balcony that reads, “To New York City and all the rescuers: Keep Your Spirits Up . . . Oklahoma Loves You!!”

The Rev. Simons preached his sermon on Luke’s account of the devil’s temptation of Christ (4:1–13) and related it to his theme for this Lent: “Listen to the Call.” Temptation, he said, is the primary signal of a call—the call doesn’t come without it. Turning to his scriptural example, he pointed out that the devil never tempted Jesus to do the opposite of what he was called to do, but to do the things he was called to do for a different reason. Turning a stone into a loaf of bread, for example, is surely a lesser feat than providing bread for 5,000 men, but Christ was not called to perform his miracles to cow people into submission. Furthermore, Jesus was called to be the most important figure in history and to have authority over men, but not the authority the devil promises him. We should look for our calling from God, the Rev. Simons said, on the flip side of our temptations.

Lent, he continued, is the perfect time to do this. This is because it is in giving things up—in modern times, perhaps, in just clearing up the clutter of our lives—that we also open ourselves up to temptation. The Rev. Simons warned, however, that we cannot go out to meet temptation without something to anchor ourselves to; as an example, he pointed to Christ’s countering the devil’s propositions with Scripture. We don’t need, necessarily, to anchor ourselves to Scripture, he continued, just something. Simons offered as an illustration a man—his legal spouse—who required students in his acting class to practice some spirituality. It did not matter, Simons said, what sort of spirituality the young actors practiced—just that they practiced. According to the Rev. Simons, the students found the experience rewarding. Simons’ anecdote, however, seemed to confuse rather than clarify his point that Christians need an anchor with which to safely encounter temptation, in its suggestion that it does not matter what faith one practices. An odd conclusion for a congregation that professes both the Apostles’ and Nicene creeds. And Simons’ personal revelation, in the midst of a broader point, may have struck some as forced.

After the sermon, the congregation rose from its chairs and gathered around the altar for communion. All were welcomed to receive. As the service drew to a close, coffee, orange juice, and doughnuts were placed on the altar where the Last Supper had just been commemorated, and people gathered under the banner that reminded the faithful, before they ventured back into the waiting world, that Oklahoma loves them.


City: New York
Borough: Manhattan
Neighborhood: Financial District
Address: 209 Broadway
Phone: 212-233-4164
Religion: Christian
Denomination: Episcopal
Main Service: Holy Eucharist, Sunday, 10 a.m.
Pastor/Chief Liturgist: The Rev. Dr. James Herbert Cooper, Rector, Trinity Parish; the presider on this occasion was the Rev. Daniel Simons, Priest for Pilgrimage and coordinator of liturgical development at Trinity Parish.

Physical Aesthetics of the Church: 7 out of 10
Precision, Reverence, and Aesthetics of the Service: 3 out of 10
Precision, Reverence, and Rhetoric of the Sermon: 4 out of 10
Music: 6 out of 10

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