NEW YORK – When the twin towers of the World Trade Center collapsed on Sept. 11, only a sycamore tree in the churchyard behind St. Paul's Chapel prevented a huge steel beam from smashing the 235-year-old church to splinters.
Uprooted by the impact, the tree paid the ultimate price. But St. Paul's survived to become an oasis that over the next eight months provided physical comfort, spiritual solace and even gourmet food to thousands of workers and volunteers from ground zero.
On Wednesday, the first anniversary of the terrorist attacks, the church reopens to the public -- cleaned and refurbished, except for the wooden pews scuffed and scratched by the boots and tool belts of workers catching a little sleep.
An exhibit, titled "Out of the Dust," tells the story of those eight months when the church, built in 1766 and now the oldest continuously used public building in Manhattan, acquired a new page in the history books.
"That history happened because of the juxtaposition of the chapel across the street from the World Trade Center," said Rev. Daniel P. Matthews, rector of Trinity parish, of which St. Paul's is a part. "We kind of didn't ask for it -- it fell in our laps."
The exhibit depicts the services that St. Paul's provided to the thousands of police officers, firefighters and volunteers who helped to search for victims and clean up debris at ground zero, said Lynn Brewster, the Trinity art director who produced the exhibit.
In the quiet of the sanctuary they could sleep a few hours, find comforting conversation, get a massage, or eat food catered by many of New York's better restaurants, 24 hours a day. The exhibit notes that the 3,000 meals served every day for eight months included not only breakfast, sandwiches, bagels and coffee, but Thai, Italian and Mexican fare, and "if it was Monday -- it was meatloaf."
George Washington's private pew, where he came to pray just minutes after being sworn in as the nation's first president in 1789, became the podiatry station where ground zero volunteers could obtain treatment for injured feet.
"The podiatrists were very popular with the workers," Brewster said. "In the early days, their boots melted in the heat of ground zero, and later they rotted off from being soaked in water."
Through it all, St. Paul's also provided chamber music groups to soothe workers' frazzled nerves and lift sagging spirits.
The exhibit includes comments from some of the workers who found refuge at St. Paul's, which was off limits to everyone else during the long cleanup.
"It's an indelible thing -- and it's become a very special place and it will remain that for me," wrote Thomas O'Connor, a carpenter.
"Thank you for taking care of my husband," said Sonya Fagan, wife of firefighter Lt. Mike Fagan.
Police Officer Michael Browne wrote, "I have a faith in people that I didn't have before."
Matthews said he was reluctant to say God's hand protected St. Paul's on Sept. 11. "You don't say with any kind of healthy theology that God saved the church, but after it was saved, it responded to its calling to be a place of refuge, worship, caring and compassion," he said.
Along with the pews -- purposely left in their scuffed condition -- a large banner still hangs from the balcony as a reminder, reading, "To New York City and all the rescuers. keep your spirits up. Oklahoma loves you."
Outside, crowds of tourists throng the sidewalks, inspecting the thousands of letters, inscribed pieces of clothing, police and fire emblems and other mementoes that have accumulated over the past year on St. Paul's iron fence.
Matthews said the parish did not anticipate that the fence would become a focal point for "people all over the world who wanted to leave something."
Many of the more perishable items already are being collected and stored, in case a museum may someday want them. "But every time we clean it off, something else goes up," said Matthews.