On Sunday, August 6th, J. Chester Johnson spoke at the Church’s Forum about his well-known poem, “St. Paul’s Chapel”. To put the poem in context, he described the long, distinguished history of the Chapel, which is the oldest church building in the borough of Manhattan (NYC). After George Washington was sworn in as the first president of the United States at Broad and Wall Streets when New York City was the nation’s capital in April, 1789, Washington and his government walked to St. Paul’s Chapel where a worship service was held as part of the country’s first inauguration. Washington continued to attend services at the Chapel until the capital would be moved to Philadelphia before ultimately being established in the District of Columbia. In addition, the funeral for James Monroe, the fifth president of the United States, was held at the Chapel on July 7, 1831.
To fast forward 170 years, St. Paul’s Chapel survives the terrorists’ attacks against the twin towers of the World Trade Center in downtown Manhattan on September 11, 2001. As the poem describes, “Not a window broken, not a stone dislodged” occurred at the Chapel. As a result of its escape from so much destruction that occurred to neighboring buildings and because of its nearness to the Ground Zero pile, the Chapel became the relief center for the recovery workers during the 8.5 month cleanup at the site. Over 14,000 volunteers from all across the country came to the Chapel to help give not only respite and refreshment to the recovery workers, but also spiritual support; indeed, the Chapel’s efforts on behalf of the workers caused the Chapel to become known as “the spiritual home of Ground Zero”.
Johnson’s poem, combining both the Chapel’s history and the then currency of its 2001-2002 relief center mission in the aftermath of the attacks, became the Chapel’s memento poem card in 2002 and has remained for that purpose in the Chapel for over twenty years with over 1.5 million cards being distributed at the Chapel. In 2017, the poem was characterized by the American Book Review as “one of the most widely distributed, lauded, and translated poems of the current century.” The entirety of the poem appears elsewhere on this website.
Click on the image above to watch Johnson’s presentation on his poem, “St. Paul’s Chapel”, at the Church of the Heavenly Rest.