On September 11, 2001, when a terrorist attack brought down the twin towers of the World Trade Center and took the lives of more than 3000 innocents, St. Joseph’s Chapel, just across the street, in Battery Park City, was spared. But the rubble came literally right up to the chapel’s front door.
Almost immediately government agencies commandeered the chapel, ripped out the pews, and used the little church as a makeshift command center. In the months that followed, firefighters, police officers, rescue workers, and members of construction crews used the chapel as a place to get some rest, and as a refuge from the smells, the smoke, and the heartbreak of working in a place of such total devastation.
By the time the work crews withdrew from the World Trade Center site, St. Joseph’s was a wreck. The Archdiocese of New York and the parishioners resolved to restore the little church and reopen it as a shrine to the victims, the heroes, and the mourners of the 9/11 calamity. It became the Catholic Memorial at Ground Zero. And an important part of the restoration was the commissioning of new works of sacred art that emphasized the significance of this little place. There are life-size sculptures of St. Florian, the patron saint of firefighters; the archangel St. Michael, the patron saint of police officers; St. Joseph, the patron saint of all workers; and St. Mary Magdalen, the first person to see the Risen Christ — she carried the message of the Resurrection to the apostles and then to the world, a message that is especially important since the 9/11 disaster.
In spite of its significance to survivors, first responders and work crews, and those who still mourn the victims, on January 7, 2018, after the last Mass of the day, the chapel will close. St. Joseph’s has become a victim of a real estate boom in Lower Manhattan. It is in a prime location: Battery Park City is a huge residential, retail, and office complex right on the waterfront. In 2009, the parish signed a lease that set the rent at $85,000 per year. But as Battery Park City became more and more desirable, the rent rose — to $264,000. The little parish’s annual income is about $160,000; the Archdiocese of New York has made up the deficit, which has now reached more than $1 million. The landlord’s best offer was to lower the rent to $200,000 a year — still more than the parish can pay. So, confronted with this harsh fiscal reality, after long discussions between leaders of the parish and the Archdiocese, it became apparent that there was no feasible alternative but to give up St. Joseph’s.
The artwork will be moved to the Church of St. Peter a few blocks north — which also stood across the street from the twin towers. The Catholic 9/11 Memorial will be rededicated there.
I can’t help thinking that all is just a little bit wrong. Some places are sacred — the Gettysburg Battlefield comes to mind — and anything that reinforces that sense of the hallowed character of the site ought to be preserved and fostered. Because we all know, once the place is no longer a chapel, once it is gutted and redesigned for one secular purpose or another, the chance of that slice of real estate ever being a chapel again is nil.
I understand that there are certain financial realities that must be faced. I am relieved that the shrine’s works of art will be moved to a church, which is where they should be. But the thought that in a few days the pastor will turn off the lights, lock the doors, and walk away forever — that makes me more than a little sad.
Thomas J. Craughwell is the author of This Saint Will Change Your Life.