St. Peter’s is the closest Catholic Church to Ground Zero. Although the towers are now gone, the church is so close to the site that it seems possible the towers may have once cast shadows over the church in the late afternoons as the sun sets to the west. Parishioners here carry a heightened awareness of the tragedy that took place nearby, and for some the grief remains so palpable 20 years later that they are still unable to speak about it.
“I can’t talk about it,” one parishioner explained when I asked for an interview. This community’s wounds are still healing.
Outside, at the top of the stairs, four statues stand on either side of grand golden doors as though guarding this hallowed ground: St. Florian, patron saint of firefighters and Emergency Medical Services workers; St. Michael the Archangel, patron saint of police officers; St. Mary Magdalene, the first witness to the Resurrection; and St. Joseph, patron saint of workers. Created by sculptor John Collier, these statues bear witness to the losses of Sept. 11, but also recognize the courage of those who participated in the rescue and recovery efforts in the aftermath of the tragedy.
One of these courageous souls was the Rev. Mychal Judge, who became an early victim of the attacks when he was struck by debris from the South Tower collapse while ministering to rescue crews, the injured and the dead in the lobby of the North Tower. Once recovered, his body was laid before the altar at St. Peter’s before being given to the medical examiner. America has written about calls for the canonization of Father Judge who gave his life in service to others.
This community’s wounds are still healing.
Although Father Judge is honored for his great bravery and ultimate sacrifice, parishioners also told me about more ordinary acts of courage they saw in the days and weeks following the tragedy. Simply moving around the local neighborhood and continuing to attend church became difficult, both physically and emotionally, in the wake of the disaster.
“It was very eerie,” John Fratta recalled. He serves as an usher at the parish today and has lived in the area all his life. “We were locked down for a long time,” he said, gesturing to his wife, Elana beside him. They remember that debris continued to rain down long after the collapse of the towers. Mr. Fratta winced at the memory of fabric falling from the air, pieces of the clothing worn by people who had jumped. “It was terrible. It was probably one of the worst things I think in our lives,” he said of that fateful day.
The Frattas also introduced me to Jane Mancino who is a deeply involved member of the parish. Ms. Mancino explained that some members of the parish could not make it to St. Peter’s to be with their community in the aftermath due to barricades and checkpoints. She said that in spite of the challenges that came with remaining in the area, “I didn’t want to leave the neighborhood.” Ms. Mancino believed that staying “was a way to say to Bin Laden, ‘You didn’t defeat us. You may have hurt us, but we’re not giving up.’” Although different from Father Judge’s act of courage on the morning of 9/11, Ms. Mancino believes that continuing to live and worship where she always had was an act of bravery. “Courage isn’t about having no fear,” she told me. “It’s about doing the right thing even when you are afraid.”
Pointing toward Ground Zero, she mapped out the area as she remembered it. “There were barriers. You couldn’t get above Albany Street,” she said.
Though some were unable to reach St. Peter’s on Barclay Street, parishioners still found ways to come together and lean on God and one another in a difficult time. In doing so, they proved that St. Peter’s Church is more than just a building or a place: It is a community of faith. “There were people in Battery City who couldn’t get here after 9/11,” Ms. Mancino told me. These members worshipped in a building lobby “because there was a chapel in Battery Park City at the time—St. John’s—but that was taken over by firemen and police.”
St. Peter’s Church is more than just a building or a place: It is a community of faith.
This year, on the anniversary of that fateful day, parishioners gathered inside the walls of St. Peter’s once again for a memorial Mass. As the Mass began, the church was quiet and peaceful as people prayed. Only the occasional low hum of the subway rumbling by below hinted at the fact that we were still in the heart of Lower Manhattan, so close to where the towers once stood.
Celebrant Auxiliary Bishop Edmund Whalen of the Archdiocese of New York began his homily by sharing about his own experience working as a morgue chaplain in the Port Authority. He remembers one particular cold and stormy evening in November of 2001. As the morgue staff paused for a much-needed coffee break around 2 in the morning, the nurses and other workers began to share stories about the Catholic high schools that so many of them had attended in the area. The coroner, an agnostic, turned to Bishop Whalen in shock as he realized, “These are all your people.” The volunteers who had gathered around to warm themselves with late night cups of coffee had one thing in common: all were Catholic.
The coroner admitted, “I don’t think there’s a God, and if there is, I don’t think you can know him. But you people do. There’s something about you people that makes you come.”
Bishop Whalen said that it was indeed their Catholic faith which had called them to aid in the aftermath. “If we respond to senseless evil with faith, then God’s goodness wins,” he said.
Recognizing that many at the Mass had their own difficult experiences of 9/11, Bishop Whalen concluded by encouraging the congregation to bring their memories to God. “Ask God for the grace to face down the evils that are ahead of us in our world now, and to face them the way we faced them 20 years ago,” he said, “with the faith and certitude of hope that’s the gift of Jesus Christ.”