St. Paul’s Chapel Offers Hope, Healing at Ground Zero

Iconic Communities, On the Road, Travel Destinations
on September 1, 2011
David Mudd While the chapel’s battered pews have been replaced, a single original pew remains in the church, draped with a firefighter’s coat. The pews served as makeshift beds for recovery workers after the attacks.

Across the street from the site of the fallen World Trade Center, Carlos Lopez lingers at a Sept. 11 exhibit inside of St. Paul’s Chapel, where he and thousands of other workers found refuge after the terrorist attacks on New York City 10 years ago this month.

“It was pretty much quiet like this most of the time,” says Lopez, 49, of Astoria, N.Y., who at the time was an emergency medical technician with the New York Fire Department. “There’d be areas with a little buzzing of conversation, but low tones, because people were always sleeping.”

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Within these protective walls, Lopez met Rhonda Villamia, then 46, of Sunnyside, N.Y., a volunteer who comforted workers during their breaks from searching for bodies at ground zero, cleaning up tons of debris from the toppled twin towers, and keeping the peace in shell-shocked Lower Manhattan. They struck up a conversation and, during the stressful weeks and months that followed, forged a unique friendship.

“Our own families couldn’t understand what we were seeing and doing [at ground zero], but volunteers like Rhonda did,” Lopez says. “There was a growing closeness to that.”

A decade later, Lopez and Villamia remain close, often getting together for meals or 9/11-related events and reuniting with other volunteers and workers they connected with during those tumultuous months.

“It’s like no time or space has come between us—the special bond that soldiers form when they’re in the trenches,” Villamia says.

Lopez agrees, noting that the relationships forged at the chapel didn’t end when the last battered steel column was removed on May 30, 2002.

“They’ll last the rest of my life,” he says.

Hope and healing
Open since 1766, St. Paul’s is Manhattan’s oldest continuously used public building—a Georgian-style chapel where George Washington worshiped as president during the late 1780s when New York City was  the nation’s capital. The building escaped the Great Fire of 1776 that burned a quarter of the city.

Nearby, when the 110-story skyscrapers collapsed on Sept. 11, 2001, then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani called the chapel’s survival “a small miracle.”

“When the towers fell, more than a dozen modern buildings were destroyed or damaged. Yet somehow amid all the destruction and devastation, St. Paul’s Chapel still stands—without as much as a broken window,” Giuliani said after the attacks.

Related: Honoring the Heroes of Sept. 11

In the nine months that followed, the historic Episcopal chapel, which is part of the Parish of Trinity Church on Wall Street, became a sanctuary for ground zero workers. Mobilizing nearly 10,000 volunteers, New York’s Episcopal community launched an around-the-clock ministry that invited recovery workers to “enter, rest, pray” without the intrusion of news reporters or camera crews. Banners, photos and letters addressed to St. Paul’s Chapel from around the world covered the walls, balcony, pews and surrounding wrought-iron fence. Volunteers served hot meals of bacon and eggs, grits and other comfort food. Church pews became makeshift beds for exhausted workers. Volunteer massage therapists, chiropractors and chaplains helped to ease the physical, emotional and spiritual pain.

“It was beautiful. It was warm. It felt safe,” recalls Linda Hanick, 57, a St. Paul’s spokeswoman who was working six blocks away at Trinity Church when the towers fell. “There aren’t a lot of statues and iconography, so whether you were Roman Catholic, Protestant, Jewish or even hostile about religion, you could come in and feel spiritual but not feel like it was someone else’s space.”

In 2004, St. Paul’s opened an interactive exhibit celebrating the hope and healing that took place after the loss and chaos of 9/11. About 1 million people visit annually.

Emerging friendships
Dr. Arthur Gudeon was 66 when the towers fell. Responding to a call for volunteer health professionals, the podiatrist treated burns, sprains and strains of workers who limped into the doors of St. Paul’s.

“I’d say, ‘Stay off this foot for a few days,’ and they’d say, ‘Fix me up. I want to go back,’” recalls Gudeon, of Rego Park, N.Y.

When Jim Traynor, then 43, of Astoria, N.Y., hobbled in, the machinery technician had worn through four pairs of work boots in two months—the soles melting from the heat created by fires beneath the burning rubble. Gudeon gave Traynor weekly cortisone injections for foot pain.

“We’d talk, and Jim and I just clicked,” Gudeon says. “I’m an avid tennis fan; he enjoys tennis. I have kids and grandkids, and he’d have pictures of his family.”

During subsequent breaks, the two men often grabbed sandwiches and a pew to sit, eat and talk.

Today, Traynor sees Gudeon socially—occasional dinners and 9/11 anniversary events—and also professionally for lingering podiatry issues. “He’s always willing to help and never wants to take money,” Traynor says. “I got paid for what I did [at ground zero], but all the volunteers got was our thanks and our friendship.”

Hero to hero
When Fiona Havlish’s husband, Don, was killed in the attacks on the World Trade Center, she worked through her grief by volunteering at St. Paul’s with fellow parishioners from her church near Philadelphia, Pa.

“Taking care of others felt so much better than taking care of me,” says Havlish, now 54 and living in Boulder, Colo.

At St. Paul’s, she had not revealed that she was a 9/11 widow—until seeing Bronx firefighter Joe “Toolie” O’Toole, then 46, sitting quietly in a pew.

“He looked so incredibly sad,” she says. “They were looking for bodies—not just of their own, the firemen and police—but every loved one. I told him who I was so I could say thank you.”

Moved by Havlish’s words, O’Toole offered the grieving widow comfort about Don, who was working on the 101st floor of the south tower when the building imploded.

“I told her, ‘Your husband didn’t feel a thing,’” recalls O’Toole, who having combed through the fragments of the fallen twin towers, understood the brute force behind their disintegration.

It was as if he’d read Havlish’s mind. “That question had been plaguing me,” Havlish says, “and he gave me the wonderful gift of relief and trust.”

From then on, whenever Havlish and O’Toole saw each other at the chapel, they chatted about their children, shared heartfelt experiences of the day or, on some occasions, just joked around to ease the emotional toll.

On the first anniversary of the attacks, they reunited at the chapel. “I felt like he was my protector,” Havlish says. “I never had a hero until Toolie.”

O’Toole felt the same way about Havlish.

“She showed me what strength is—to continue living life at full speed with a heavy heart,” says O’Toole, now retired and living in Nanuet, N.Y.

Today, the friends talk on the phone occasionally but connect on a different level in person.

“That’s when it’s time to take that deep breath and say, ‘How are you really doing?’” Havlish says. “That’s why I’m going to New York for the 10th anniversary. I want to have those conversations. They fill my soul.”

Related: Love from the Ashes of 9/11