NEW YORK, June 21, 2016 — It was an event so improbable many considered it a miracle. No one more so than the first American president who that day swore an oath to defend the new U.S. Constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic.
“No people can be bound to acknowledge and adore the invisible hand, which conducts the affairs of men more than the People of the United States,” said George Washington in his 1789 inaugural address to Congress. “Every step, by which they have advanced to the character of an independent nation, seems to have been distinguished by some token of providential agency.”
And no one was more aware of providential intervention than Washington.
“I have been protected beyond all human probability or expectation,” he wrote in a letter to his brother, “for I had four bullets through my coat, and two horses shot under me, yet escaped unhurt, although death was leveling my companions on every side of me.”
Having concluded his inaugural address, Washington’s first act as president was to fulfill the terms of a Congressional resolution stating that he and they “proceed to St. Paul’s Chapel to hear divine service.”
And so, the first U.S. government under the Constitution marched a few blocks north of New York City’s Federal Hall on Wall Street to St. Paul’s Chapel on Broadway.
Like the soldier/statesman that sat under its roof, St. Paul’s was a beneficiary of providential protection. Built in 1766, the structure came under threat ten years later, the same year Thomas Jefferson penned the Declaration of Independence. But the “chapel of ease” somehow escaped the ravages of fire that consumed one-third of the city.
225 years later, this modest place of worship survived the collapse of the World Trade Center towers one short block away, its stained glass windows withstanding the rush of 150-mile-an-hour winds generated by the falling structures.
Approaching the Georgian Classic-Revival building from Church Street, one confronts its ancient churchyard. Among the cemetery’s nearly 1,000 internees rests John Bailey – the man who forged General Washington’s jade-handle battle sword now on display at the National Museum of American History in the nation’s capital.
George Eacker also rests here, famous (or infamous) for killing Philip Hamilton in a duel in 1801. Three years later, Philip’s father, Founding Father and current hit Broadway musical sensation Alexander Hamilton, suffered the same fate at the hands of Vice President Aaron Burr.
Just in passing, a Revolutionary War citizen’s militia, Hearts of Oak, trained on these very church grounds – led by Alexander Hamilton.
Before entering the sanctuary, its steeple towering above, you see the Bell of Hope; a gift from the Lord Mayor of London and the Archbishop of Canterbury, presented in 2002. The bell – “forged in adversity” – commemorates the tragic events of 9/11 and was cast at the Whitechapel Foundry, which long ago fashioned Philadelphia’s Liberty Bell.
On entering the rectangular structure, your eyes immediately focus ahead to three windows illuminating the neo-baroque altar designed by architect and civil engineer Pierre L’Enfant, who designed the federal district of Washington, D.C.
The Glory Altarpiece, as it is known, has two stone tablets at its base that are inscribed with the Ten Commandments. Carved white clouds surround these dark slabs as a representation of Mount Sinai rises above them, crowned by a translucent golden sun inscribed with the Hebrew word Yahweh (God). To its immediate left stands the tall pulpit.
As you face the altar, turn left to see a replica of the box where George Washington sat and worshiped, his chair and hymnal stand inside. Directly opposite sits the Governors box.
Looking up, you see the original 14 cut-glass chandeliers, modernized to receive lightbulbs in 1925.
Along the walls at St. Paul’s are various displays, like the “Healing Hearts and Minds,” which contains a policeman’s uniform covered by police and firefighter’s patches from around the world.
Right of the altar, is another. The “Pilgrimage Alter,” which contains small tokens and notes left by the families of loved ones who perished on 9/11.
A plaque reads:
“After 9/11, this alter was filled spontaneously with mementos by those remembering their lost loved ones. To this day, all pilgrims to St. Paul’s Chapel bring something precious with them: a hope, a question, a memory, a wound. This is a sacred place to name and offer what is in your heart.”
And this simple, unbroken sacrament of providential acknowledgment connects us to the venerable George Washington.
Part-museum and public gathering place but still an active part of Trinity Church Parish, St. Paul’s Chapel is opened Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. And on Sunday from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.