St. Paul’s (nearly) invincible Churchyard

St. Paul’s Chapel and Churchyard opened in 1766. At this moment, that brings the structures age to approximately 248 years old. It is the oldest public building still in use in NYC, and was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1960. With approximately 1,000 interments in a space smaller than 1/4 of a city block, the location is eerie and filled to the brim with history.

On April 30th, 1789, George Washington’s Inauguration Day, he and several members of the first US Congress came to St. Paul’s Chapel to worship. Inside the chapel his “Presidential Pew” is still intact. (I had a near freak out moment when I realized I was walking in a place that Washington had walked on. The first President people…he’s not a Unicorn! Those names from history always seem like myths until you have something tangible in front of you that was theirs. Such a cool experience.) 🙂

Another fascinating fact about the chapel is it’s location: directly across the street and facing Ground Zero. On September 11th 2001 when the WTC attacks took place, miraculously the Chapel and the churchyard, were nearly unfazed. (Not even a broken window!) The church claims that it was spared by a “miracle sycamore” tree that took the bulk of the damage and debris. While there were considerable amounts of debris in the graveyard, only a small handful of headstones were damaged.

Saint Paul's Church, right after 9/11

When I first walked into the churchyard, aside from noticing the large number of people also exploring the location, I noticed a very unsettling fact. The ground…the ground was soft. All of it was like mush. (“Swamp of Sadness” in The Neverending Story mush.) I tried to walk between the graves to get a better look, but every step felt like I was about to fall into their plot and join them in their interred endeavors. I would have understood if it had just rained or something of that nature…but there was barely a cloud in the sky.


Because of the nature of the soil, numerous gravestones have all but disappeared into the nearly quicksand ground.


Here’s a look at the Chapel and the Churchyard throughout the eras. First in 1884, even then the location was already 118 years old.

St. Paul's Church New York City

Then here in 1934.

S. Paul's Chapel in NYC

And here, finally, this was from yesterday. Such a contrast to today’s location, which is nearly engulfed by construction.

St. Paul's Church under construction, NYC

(One of the graves I was most excited to see, I ended up not even being able to get to. (Recall the “Swamp of Sadness” mush that was any attempt at walking on the lawn itself?) And since I was taking photos with my horrid old iPod Touch, there wasn’t a clear zoom to be able to get a good shot of his grave. So, I suggest you google this fine chap’s name and see for yourself.)

George Frederick Cooke was an actor, mostly known for his Shakespearean performances. He died in 1812 and was laid to rest in the churchyard of St Paul’s. But in 1821 his skull was stolen. According to local lore, headless Cooke is believed to wander around the cemetery at night, searching for his stolen skull. Another legend is that his stolen skull, in the pure Shakespearean fashion, is used in productions of Hamlet. (Fun fact: A recent version of Hamlet starring David Tennant as Hamlet, used a real human skull in the film. So…it wouldn’t be too far a stretch to imagine good ole’ Cooke’s cranium being soliloquized upon.) 😉

Lastly, here is a look from outside the fence, from the backyard of the chapel. Framing the impressively sky-scraping Freedom Tower (in place of the WTC), and pairing it in stark contrast with the nearly 250 year old Chapel. A glance at the past, and a gaze into the future.

St. paul's Church and the Freedom Tower

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