On September 11, 2001, Justine Cuccia was nine months pregnant when she watched in horror as two hijacked planes crash into the World Trade Center buildings in New York City.
Her neighborhood, Battery Park City, was just across the street, including her parish, St. Joseph’s chapel, located in the bottom of an apartment building along with coffee shops and other storefronts.
In the weeks following the disaster, the small chapel became a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) command station. First responders tore out the pews to provide a space for food, shelter and counseling for the next several weeks of clean-up. Even the altar cloths were torn up and used as bandages. Priests of St. Joseph’s celebrated Mass in a nearby gym.
Afterwards, the chapel’s interior, severely damaged by the smoke, debris, and the nature of the work in the command center, needed a complete remodeling, which a group of dedicated parishioners saw to completion by the next year.
Today, the chapel itself is in danger. High rent could force the closure of the chapel and the corresponding Catholic memorial to 9/11 unless an agreement is reached or a “miracle” happens.
But Cuccia and a small group of parishioners, most of whom lived through the 9/11 attacks, will not let the chapel and memorial go without a fight.
“We promised never to forget, and we’re forgetting,” Cuccia told CNA.
The group’s first hope is that a sustainable rent can be agreed upon by the Pastor and Archdiocese and LeFrak and its partners (the landlord).
“We have asked for the assistance of the Battery Park City Authority. Through their intervention, the landlord offered to reduce the rent from $80 per square foot to $70 per square foot, retrospective to January 1, 2017 until the lease ends in March, 2019. The Pastor and financial committee maintain that this is still not sustainable and have told us they countered at $17 per square foot,” Cuccia said.
Further frustrating the group of parishioners is that pastor Fr. Jarlath Quinn seems to not want the chapel to stay open, Cuccia said. He has told them that the chapel will close by June, barring miraculous intervention.
New buildings and luxury apartments in the area changed that area of Battery Park City from a middle class neighborhood to an upper-class neighborhood, raising rent beyond what the small parish could afford.
According to a financial statement published on the parish website, the Archdiocese of New York loaned the parish $540,431 during the 2016 fiscal year to pay the bills, bringing the parish net deficit for the year to $91,868 and the parish’s total indebtedness to the Archdiocese to $1,348,000.
“The trustees and the members of the Finance Council believe that this significant operating loss is not sustainable and that parish expenses must be brought in line with operating revenues,” the statement said.
St. Joseph’s chapel is a part of the parish of St. Peter and Our Lady of the Rosary. The parish referred all questions to Joseph Zwilling, director of communications for the Archdiocese of New York.
The decision about what to do with St. Joseph’s chapel “would be a parish decision, as Saint Joseph’s Chapel is a part of Saint Peter’s Parish,” Zwilling said. “The parish is still determining next steps, but at this point it appears as if only some kind of ‘miracle’ would keep the Chapel going.”
“Father Quinn is making plans to properly preserve the 9/11 memorial, should Saint Joseph’s Chapel close,” he added.
But the chapel is the memorial, the parishioners argue, and an effort to preserve it by relocating the art, but vacating the space, would be beside the point.
During the post-9/11 reconstruction, everything that went into the chapel’s interior spoke of hope and resurrection, Cuccia said.
“From the floor, to the wood on the walls and the altar, the windows – it was specifically designed to be a symbol of rebirth, renewal and growth, to say we’re back, we got knocked down after 9/11 and we’re back,” Cuccia said.
“The church itself is the memorial. They say a church is made up of the people, and we will be a parish and a church wherever we go, but the 9/11 memorial will cease to exist if it’s not (at St. Joseph’s).”
The preservation of the Catholic 9/11 memorial is especially important to people like Cuccia who are unable to pay their respects at the World Trade Center memorial across the street, because they find it too upsetting.
“It’s too painful to me, and I’m not the only one who has that feeling,” Cuccia said.
“What happened to the people who lost their lives, the sacrifice and the heroism of the first responders, the way that I can respect them and honor them is to go to my chapel and memorial, because that I can manage, and that I can get some solace and comfort from,” she said.
“All I can tell you is that after that horror, I saw the best of humanity that day,” from the first responders to the random acts of kindness of strangers helping each other out on the street, she said.
“I saw the worst of people and the best of people that day, and when I go into that chapel, I see the best of people, and that’s why it needs to be preserved.”
By Mary Rezac