St. Paul’s Churchyard

Located directly across from the World Trade Center site, St. Paul’s Chapel and churchyard stand in testimony to the church’s unique history and the special role it played following the events of September 11th, 2001.  The chapel, which is the oldest public building in continuous use in Manhattan, was built in 1766 by Trinity Church to serve Anglicans living in what was then the northern outskirts of the city. Erected on the west side of Broadway, the chapel was positioned to overlook the Hudson River, with a great yard extending out in front of it.  St. Paul’s is known for its pew set aside for George Washington, who worshipped at the chapel during the years that New York City served as the nation’s capitol.

St. Paul’s Chapel and Churchyard, 1852.

An 1884 view of St. Paul’s Chapel and Churchyard (NYPL)

St. Paul’s churchyard is bounded by Broadway on the east, Church Street on the west, Vesey Street on the north, and Fulton Street on the south. It contains about 800 gravestones, and 30 vaults lie under the churchyard and chapel. Revolutionary War hero Major General Richard Montgomery is among the prominent individuals buried there.  In 1818, over four decades after his 1775 death at the Battle of Quebec, Montgomery’s body was interred beneath the Chapel’s east porch, where a monument to him had been erected by Congressional order in 1776. Burials in the churchyard discontinued after interments in lower Manhattan were prohibited during the first half of the 19th century, although occasional interments were made in the family vaults into the early 1900s.

Rescue worker amidst debris in St. Paul’s churchyard following Sept 11, 2001 (FEMA)

Building 5 of the World Trade Center stood just across Church Street from St. Paul’s, and the Twin Towers were one block away. When the buildings collapsed after the September 11th attacks, St. Paul’s churchyard was covered with dust and debris and a few tombstones were broken, but overall remained relatively unscathed. It is thought that the trees in the churchyard helped shield the chapel, which suffered no physical damage.  For eight months after the attack, the chapel served as a relief center for recovery workers working at the World Trade Center site and became an impromptu shrine for mourners.

The World Trade Center site across Church Street from St. Paul’s Chapel, 2008.

Following a $300,000 restoration, St. Paul’s Chapel reopened to the public in August of 2002 and the churchyard reopened a year later. The restoration project included conservation of the headstones, which were vacuumed and washed to remove corrosive particulates that had been embedded in the surfaces from the dust storm that accompanied the collapse.  Two inches of ash-filled topsoil were also removed and replaced with new sod. Today, the chapel offers exhibits and memorials that tell its part in the September 11 story, and the historic churchyard provides a contemplative place to view redevelopment of the World Trade Center site.

Tombstones in St. Paul’s Churchyard, 2008.

Sources: Dripps’ 1852 Map of the City of New-York extending northward to Fiftieth St; St. Paul’s Chapel; St. Paul’s Churchyard; Churchyards of Trinity Parish in the City of New York, 1697-1969 (J.V. Butler 1969), 54-78; Walks in Our Churchyards (J.F. Mines 1896), 130-151; “Polished Marble and Sacramental Scuffs,” New York Times, August 25, 2002; “At Ground Zero Oasis, a Path is Restored,” New York Times, Nov. 7, 2003; NYC GIS.

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2 Responses to St. Paul’s Churchyard

  1. Pingback: Cemetery of the Week #73: St. Paul’s Chapel churchyard | Cemetery Travel: Adventures in Graveyards Around the World

  2. Mark Nolan says:

    A very moving experience for any visitor to New York.

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