Mystery Worshipper: Amanda B. Reckondwyth
Church: St Joseph Chapel
Location: Battery Park City, New York
Date of visit: Wednesday, 1 March 2006, 7:30am
[Editor's note: The chapel premises were vacated in January 2018] This tiny chapel, formerly a dry-cleaning establishment, is located on the ground floor of an apartment building in lower Manhattan's Battery Park City, and stands as a memorial to the tragic events of September 11, 2001. The pale beige and light brown interior is wider than it is deep, and chairs are arranged directly in front of the altar and to either side of it at an angle. Traditional-looking stained glass windows line the back wall. Also at the back is a baptismal font featuring a steadily flowing stream of water, whose gentle plash reinforces the chapel's tranquil atmosphere. To the left is a group of four statues (see picture below) depicting St Michael the Archangel, patron saint of police; St Florian, patron saint of firefighters; St Joseph, patron saint of the working class; and Mary Magdalene, the first witness to Christ's resurrection.
St Joseph Chapel numbers about 300 parishioners and is a part of St Peter's parish, the oldest Roman Catholic parish in New York. On September 11, 2001, a cloud of dust and ash from the imploding World Trade Center engulfed the chapel. The space was commandeered by FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency), whose staff moved the chapel's furnishings outside where they were destroyed in a rainstorm a few days later (although the altar missal and other sacred articles were rescued by a passer-by who calmly picked them up from the sidewalk and stashed them in a closet). When FEMA was through with the space, it left it in a shambles. It might have remained so, but an outpouring of community spirit transformed the chapel into a memorial of 9/11. It was rededicated by His Eminence Edward Cardinal Egan, Archbishop of New York, on May 22, 2005.
Battery Park City, in the southwestern-most corner of Manhattan, was built on landfill from the excavation for the World Trade Center. Envisioned as a grand experiment in urban design, it is a mixture of residential and office buildings, small commercial establishments, parks and gardens, and outdoor art. A tree-lined esplanade runs the entire length of Battery Park City along the Hudson River, offering spectacular views of the river and New York Harbor, the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, and the New Jersey shoreline.
The Revd Edwin Beck, S.J., adjunct priest, was the celebrant. The Rt Revd Msgr Joseph Zammitt, priest in residence, assisted with the distribution of communion and the imposition of ashes after mass.
What was the name of the service?Mass with Imposition of Ashes.
How full was the building?
I counted about 100 chairs, and they all were occupied, with a dozen or so standees at the rear.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Was your pew comfortable?
Yes. The chairs were adequately cushioned and equipped with fold-down kneelers.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Everyone quietly awaited the beginning of mass. One gentleman thought it appropriate not only to receive a call on his cell phone but also to engage in an extended conversation with the caller.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Lord, you are merciful to all, and hate nothing you have created."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
The ubiquitous paperback Seasonal Missalette.
What musical instruments were played?
Did anything distract you?
Just before mass began, a group of about a dozen gentlemen entered together and all sat together. From their appearance, I wondered if they might be firemen.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
A simple but dignified novus ordo mass.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
9 – Father Beck's remarks were understandably short, as this was the first of a series of tightly-scheduled masses, but he managed to pack a wallop nonetheless.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
It is fitting in Lent that we devote more time to prayer and repentance. God will help us if we only but ask. But we should not do this solely for the outward appearance or to glorify ourselves, but rather for the glory of God. There will be no more sorrow or trial when we are united with God.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The calm beauty of this memorial to 9/11, so stark and yet so complete, combined with the simplicity of the liturgy, made for a most heavenly experience.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Several racks of votive candles were of the electric kind, where one pushed a button to light a "candle" which then flickered with a fake mechanical flame.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
We all went forward to receive ashes and then everyone left quietly. I recognized a woman from my office, and we nodded and smiled.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was none.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
9 – The chapel is directly across the street from my office, and I wouldn't mind popping in for mass on those rare occasions when I have to work on Sunday. If I lived in Battery Park City I would seriously consider making the chapel my regular – although Trinity Wall Street is just a short distance away, and that would tempt me too.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes. I think the statue of Mary Magdalene sums it up in a nutshell: Jesus is the resurrection, and whosoever believes in him shall never die.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The beautiful statues of St Michael, St Florian, St Joseph and Mary Magdalene, and the fitting memorial they make.