BeliefWatch: Ground Zero's 'Shrine'

Carole Pizzolante, from Ontario, Canada, is standing in a historic church in New York City, and she is trying not to cry. Before her is a wall, plastered with the faces of people killed on 9/11. "It's all so bloody senseless, I can't get through it," she says with a wave of her hand, and then her composure falters. She pauses and says, through tears, "What could anyone gain from doing something like this?"

For years, St. Paul's Chapel was an important but overlooked tourist attraction. What St. Paul's had to offer was its history—it was built in 1766—and a pew, located at the side of the church where George Washington sat and worshiped after his Inaugural in 1789. Almost no one went there, in other words, and those who did were mostly financial-district office workers who liked to eat their lunches under the shade trees in the chapel's ancient cemetery. For years and years, six people, on average, attended Sunday-morning services there, says the Rev. Stuart Hoke, staff chaplain at St. Paul's.

All that changed after 9/11. St. Paul's, which is located across the street from Ground Zero but suffered little damage in the disaster, became the headquarters for the relief effort; innumerable firefighters and police officers slept, wept and prayed in its wooden, white-backed pews. Now St. Paul's is a shrine, the closest thing America has to a pilgrimage site. Thirty-five thousand tourists visit the chapel every week. It is a popular stop on bus tours. Pilgrims add mementos (photos, poems) of their own beloved dead to those lost in the Twin Towers, the way visitors to the Western Wall in Jerusalem tuck prayers into its cracks. People from all over the country—indeed, all over the world—sit in the church "and weep and weep and weep," says Hoke. "They bring in all their other griefs, the mothers and fathers of soldiers in Iraq, all of this grief is taken to the altar."

St. Paul's presented a predicament for Hoke and the staff at Trinity Wall Street, the Episcopal parish that owns the chapel. It suddenly had to accommodate all these pilgrims, most of whom were not seeking conventional Christian worship. So in a controversial move, the church recently removed the battle-scarred pews, replacing them with chairs that can be arranged in any kind of configuration. Of the original 24 pews, two remain, the dents and scratches made from work boots and fire hats everywhere in evidence. If St. Paul's is a shrine, these are its relics.