HAMLET — Several iconic images from the terrorist attacks that brought down the twin towers of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, continue to invoke powerful emotions in people in all parts of the world — but perhaps none is so awe inspiring as that of a tiny chapel unscathed amid tons of crumbled concrete, white ash and smoldering debris.
St. Paul’s Chapel, known after 9/11 as “The Little Chapel that Stood,” has been part of the Trinity Wall Street Episcopal parish church since 1766.
The Rev. Father Stuart Hoke worked for Trinity at the time of the attacks and is now rector of All Saints Episcopal Church on Henderson Street, across from Hamlet Public Library.
“Every year at about this time, I begin dreaming of planes crashing and losing people I love,” Hoke said. “But there’s another side to that, because there were remarkable things that I saw, also.”
These are the first thoughts Hoke shared when asked about the approaching 15th anniversary of 9/11.
Hoke was on his way to Trinity Wall Street on what he described as a beautiful morning that quickly turned to chaos.
“One thing that comes to mind is the incredible cohesive community that developed in the church in those 45 minutes after the second plane hit,” he recalled. “People began running into the church looking for shelter. All kinds of people. When the building crashed down, the glass began to fall out and the whole place was filled with debris. The impact was so great, Trinity Church shook violently — almost a 4 on the Richter Scale, we later heard.
“The South Tower was collapsing in on itself,” Hoke continued. “It was imploding. No one in the church had any clue what was happening. If you happen to have been watching television at that moment, you knew so much more than we did. The noise of those floors collapsing one after the other was horrible, just, ‘Bam! Bam! Bam!’”
Hoke said that there was, despite the horror, a spirit of consolation present among those huddled in fear beneath pews and against each other as the power went out.
“One very prominent woman in the congregation, a vestry member, began shouting as that noise filled the room,” he said. “She began to scream, ‘Jesus! Jesus!’ And then another man in the back shouted, ‘Anthrax! Anthrax!’ And one more gentleman who was the verger in the church said, ‘Shut up! Shut up!’ And everyone began to laugh. Even while all of that was going on.”
The laughter, he said, was inspiring despite the dire and unknown circumstances the occupants of Trinity faced that morning.
“All the debris was coming in, that black smoke,” he said. “But there was this wave of consolation that came over us. People even wept. I know we all thought we were going to die, because it was so dark.”
He said that when people first began to fill the church, before the first tower fell, he had tried reading from scripture and leading them in songs. He selected several prayers from ‘The Book of Common Prayer.’ Hoke said that as he sought words to reassure the frightened refugees from the destruction taking place outside the church’s doors, he found a copy of the Bible someone had given him.
“It was called ‘The Message’ and it was very strong,” he said of the phrasing of the scriptures.
Chapter eight of Saint Paul’s letter to the Romans proclaimed that “…none of this fazes us because Jesus loves us. I’m absolutely convinced that nothing — nothing living or dead, angelic or demonic, today or tomorrow, high or low, thinkable or unthinkable — absolutely nothing can get between us and God’s love because of the way that Jesus our Master has embraced us.”
“That verse was so crystal clear in those moments,” Hoke said. “It was a juxtaposition of the word and the events taking place all around us.”
His first attempt at selecting a comforting hymn, however, was a bit too apropos.
“I was going to sing ‘Nearer My God to Thee,’ but when it dawned me that such was the hymn that allegedly accompanied the last moments on the Titanic, I quickly changed it.” Hoke recounted. “So instead, I began to lead them in ‘O God, Our Help in Ages Past.’ Those lyrics, ‘O God, our help in ages past, our hope for years to come, our shelter from the stormy blast, and our eternal home’ were so perfect for that moment.”
But after the tower fell and the church went dark and began to fill with smoke, everyone quickly evacuated. Hoke remembers the people of all faiths and backgrounds — Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, and all who had come in seeking shelter — running for their lives down the street.
“You’ve seen that giant dust ball,” he said. “And the children from the day school were still there with us. We went and got them out, and as we were crossing the street, the second tower fell and we were overcome with dust. There were a couple of buses, and one driver said he could take our children and teachers to safety using the back roads under the F.D. Roosevelt freeway.”
He said that by 10:30 p.m., all of the children were reunited with their family members — many of whom had narrowly escaped the collapsing towers themselves.
Hoke said that in the immediate aftermath of the destruction, before the clergy had even met to organize plans, the congregation of Trinity Wall Street seized the opportunity to be of help.
“They walked under the cordons and began setting up barbecue pits for the first responders,” he remembered. “They even began to put out (portable toilets) for them. The spirit of mission was already in that church. Then, to see this little chapel come alive feeding 3,000 people a day and providing places for firemen to sleep every night. Nurses came, doctors, even the Waldorf Astoria came every day and brought food. It was one of the brightest things I’ve ever seen.”
In the weeks that followed, Hoke remembers the strength of unity of New Yorkers and the way that seemed to contrast harshly with what outsiders had to say about the attitudes of the city’s people.
“The smoke lasted until late December, the smoke just kept billowing out and the stench remained in the air,” he reflected. “I think that maybe some of the people from afar were not there to see all that. They saw the horror, but not the redemption of it. There was such anger and disturbance outside the city. We New Yorkers were sickened at the thought of reprisal when our nation’s leaders said, ‘We will smoke them out. We will fight fire with fire.”
“But, weren’t you angry?” people asked Father Hoke.
“Yes,” he said. “But not with a vengeful spirit. This is not only just a narrative of the horror, but the spiritual consolations that were so vividly apparent.”
In Hoke’s ‘The Fire Sermon’ preached in London, he describes how “The Little Chapel that Stood” has come to represent the resilience of faith and the human spirit:
“Saint Paul’s Chapel, built in 1766 to resemble London’s St Martin’s in the Fields, is the oldest building in Manhattan that has been in continuous usage since its opening. It just barely survived the Revolutionary War, it just narrowly escaped one of the great fires that destroyed the city, and lo and behold it somehow survived 9/11 with only one cracked pane of glass, an uprooted 100-year-old sycamore tree, and four overturned tombstones in the churchyard. St. Paul’s is located only fifty feet from what was Tower 7. We could not believe that it was standing when the first report came to us on Wednesday evening the 12th.”
Hoke invites the public to attend a 9/11 memorial service at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 14 at All Saints Episcopal Church in Hamlet. Refreshments will follow in the fellowship hall adjacent to the church.
“I think it will reinvigorate their faith in God,” he said. “God is very much at work in tragedy, always bringing good out of evil and light out of darkness — sometimes immediate and sometimes, later on.”
All Saints is located at 217 Henderson Street in Hamlet. For information, call 910-582-0861.
Reach reporter Melonie McLaurin at 910-817-2673 and follow her on Twitter @meloniemclaurin.
St. Paul’s Chapel, opened in 1766 as a “chapel-of-ease” for parishioners of Trinity Wall Street who did not want to walk a few blocks south along unpaved streets, survived the collapse of two towers on Sept. 11, 2001.