The Catholic Parish at Ground Zero

St. Peter Catholic Church and its mission chapel, St. Joseph’s, somehow survived when the World Trade Center towers collapsed around them on September 11, 2001. That these humble structures should escape with minimal damage (landing gear from one of the aircraft struck St. Peter’s roof) is itself remarkable.

Yet this community has nothing shy of a remarkable history.  St. Peter’s is New York’s oldest parish and home to the state’s first Catholic school.  St. Elizabeth Ann Seton was received into the Catholic Church there in 1805. Venerable Pierre Toussaint, a Haitian-born slave who became a prominent New York businessman and humanitarian, attended daily Mass at St. Peter’s for 66 years, from 1787-1853.  As a Notre Dame graduate student, I was also delighted to discover that when Fr. Edward F. Sorin, C.S.C and six Holy Cross brothers arrived to New York from France in 1841, they recouped and celebrated Mass at St. Peter’s before proceeding to Indiana to found the University of Notre Dame.

But perhaps what is most remarkable about St. Peter’s and St. Joseph’s, and timely on this the eleventh anniversary of September 11, is the parish’s witness during the weeks and months after the 2001 tragedies, captured in the dedication of the Catholic Memorial at Ground Zero offered by their parish community:

“On September 11, a cloud of dust and ash from the imploding World Trade Center towers engulfed the Chapel.  In the wake of the disaster, government relief agencies used the chapel as their command station.  The pulpit and pews were moved ouside and destroyed in a rainstorm a few days later.  A tent erected where the priests of St. Joseph’s celebrated Mass for rescue and recovery workers.  For the next several months, the Chapel was used as a sanctuary for construction workers, police officers and firefighters who came to eat, talk with spiritual counselors from a range of religious traditions and simply rest from the physically, emotionally and spiritually exhausting recovery efforts at Ground Zero…” 

What can we make of this striking image of a Catholic parish turned staging ground for rescue and recovery efforts?  Surely not every parish is given the opportunity to display such radical hospitality in its local community, to exhibit the kind of heroism of Fr. Mychal Judge, an NYFD chaplain whose body was carried by firefighters to St. Peter’s when he was mortally wounded in the North Tower.  And few parishes will see their sanctuaries turned into what pastor Fr. Kevin Madigan described of St. Peter’s: “Stuff was piled six feet high all over the pews—bandages, gas masks, boots, hoses and cans of food for the workers and the volunteers, many of whom were sleeping in the church on bedrolls.”

Nonetheless, in addition to the ongoing evangelization of its members through worship, formation and pastoral care, today’s parish is called to a bold evangelization of its community, beginning with extensions of hospitality.  As a pastoral statement of the U.S. Bishops described: “In urban neighborhoods, in suburban communities, and in rural areas, parishes serve as anchors of hope and communities of caring, help families meet their own needs and reach out to others, and serve as centers of community life and networks of assistance.”
 We will probably never see our sanctuaries become centers of emergency rescue efforts.  But how can they become staging grounds for responding to the Gospel calls and command centers for extending justice, peace and charity to our neighbors?

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