The Lebanese and Syrian Maronite church of St. Joseph’s in Lower Manhattan had a remarkable history from the 1880s until the year 2018, when its namesake was closed by the Archdiocese of New York and the Parish of St. Peter’s after a massive 300% rent increase by LeFrak’s Gateway Plaza in Battery Park City. Leadership of the Washington Street Advocacy Group participated in last-minute efforts to save the chapel, which had been transformed into the official Catholic Memorial to remember September 11, 2001.
Originally located in the historic “Little Syria” neighborhood at 127 Washington Street, 81 Washington Street, and then 57 Washington Street, the transfer of this church to its final location at Gateway Plaza had not occurred by choice. The construction of the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel by Robert Moses led to the demolition of the earlier church at 57 Washington Street after seizure by eminent domain, along with the destruction of a large amount of the original neighborhood (whose community had already been weakened by the practical “ban” on immigration from Greater Syria and other locations in the 1924 Immigration Act).
By May 1949, the congregation relocated to a new location at 157 Cedar Street, where the Maronites did substantial remodeling work. In order to provide additional Catholic services in Latin (instead of Syriac) for the masses of World Trade Center workers, in 1969 the Archdiocese bought the property, promising that the Maronites would always be able to celebrate their liturgy there if desired. Yet, in 1983, the church was again demolished for a parking lot for the World Trade Center, and the chapel was moved to the former location in Battery Park City.
In 2002, after the September 11 attacks, the original cornerstone of St. Joseph’s, which had been transferred from the earlier Washington Street location, was discovered in the rubble of the World Trade Center, next to the St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox church which had been destroyed in the attacks. This artifact is an invaluable testimony to the long history of Arab Americans in the United States, and it is on display at Our Lady of Lebanon cathedral in Brooklyn.
In 2005, Cardinal Edward Egan rededicated St. Joseph’s as the Catholic September 11 Memorial. The chapel was filled with statues and artwork honoring the sacrifices of firefighters and police officers on September 11. It also commemorated how St. Joseph’s Chapel played an important role in sheltering and supporting the rescue and recovery workers after the September 11 attacks.
The Washington Street Advocacy Group worked for months to urge all parties -- the LeFrak Organization, the state, the city, the Battery Park City Authority, the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, and Community Board 1 -- to meet together to broker a long-term solution for St. Joseph’s Chapel, analogously to what was done to ensure the rebuilding of St. Nicholas at the World Trade Center. It also organized a press conference for advocates to make their case.
Unfortunately, we failed to receive an audience with the Archdiocese of New York, despite receiving this letter from Cardinal Dolan.
It is a shame that in the reconstruction of Downtown Manhattan, tens of billions of dollars were spent on large, boondoggle projects for luxury development, yet community institutions and historic buildings were neglected or dismantled due to lack of foresight and organized support. The long-time residents of the Lower West Side, including many parishioners at St. Joseph’s Chapel, saw this chapel as one of the neighborhood’s last living links to the area’s history as a working class immigrant neighborhood with a large Catholic population.
Now, the Washington Street Advocacy Group seeks to persuade the Catholic Archdiocese of New York to recognize the history of this chapel by ensuring that the stained glass windows from that community are protected and preserved.
The New York Post, April 9, 2017: https://nypost.com/2017/04/09/chapel-that-served-911-first-responders-could-shutter/
The New York Times, April 18, 2017: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/18/nyregion/st-josephs-chapel-sept-11-attacks.html
Catholic News Agency, May 3, 2017: https://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/catholics-desperate-to-save-911-chapel-in-new-york-76151
Aleteia, May 12, 2017: https://aleteia.org/2017/05/12/911-memorial-chapel-set-to-close/
National Catholic Register, May 24, 2017: https://www.ncregister.com/news/a-9-11-sacred-site-is-at-risk-in-new-york
TribecaTrib, September 12, 2017: http://tribecatrib.com/content/parishioners-make-plea-offer-plan-save-their-battery-park-city-church
Spectrum News 1, November 16, 2017: https://spectrumlocalnews.com/nc/triad/news/2017/11/16/church-that-offered-sanctuary-to-9-11-first-responders-to-close-in-january
The American Spectator, December 28, 2017: https://spectator.org/a-ground-zero-shrine-will-close-in-a-few-days/