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Fame and faith in 'the 9/11 chapel'

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The Rev. Stuart Hoke, in his ornate green vestments, looks out of place at St. Paul's Chapel. His noonday Eucharist prayers seem a mere curiosity here. The room, after all, has become somewhat of a tourist attraction, given over to the aftermath of 9/11. But the priest carries on, preaching to a distracted and ever-shifting congregation – a tank-topped, flip-flopped river of strangers that slowly makes its way around the perimeter of the sanctuary.

Every moment or two, someone will take a pew, sit down, or kneel, then stand up mid-sermon and leave. They have come, after all, to honor the dead and to see the chapel's artifacts – the famous banners, the photos, the toys, the badges, notes, flags, and plastic roses – what parishioner J. Chester Johnson describes in a poem as the "litter of the heart" left behind five years ago.

By an open door next to the altar, a bright red double-decker tour bus idles.

St. Paul's Chapel became known worldwide for its role as a physical and spiritual mender of the exhausted relief workers from the smoldering "pit" of ground zero across the street. If not for the side altar covered with pictures of the many, many young and handsome dead, its exhibit would seem to chronicle triumph. For while the world counted lives lost, the chapel counted meals served, supplies donated, volunteer efforts brought during an eight-month, round-the-clock recovery period. Finally, St. Paul's emerged as a symbol of the incalculable goodness spawned by the horrific events of 9/11.

From the inside, the response was peaceful – a matter of lightly "steering," says Diane Reiners, who coordinated the 14,000, mostly autonomous, volunteers. Management, when it happened, was a matter of "a little more of this, a little less of that."


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