But for particular places of faith in the path of fate that day, the experience was direct and devastating. Today, their congregants are deeper and stronger in belief, if sadder in life, say New York and Washington spiritual leaders as they reflect and prepare for a tragic anniversary. These are particularly difficult days for two Catholic churches hit the hardest by losses at the World Trade Center: 26 parishioners at St. Mary's in New Monmouth, N.J.; 12 at St. Francis de Sales in the Long Island beach community of Belle Harbor. St. Francis de Sales' Monsignor Martin Geraghty was finishing a memorial Mass on Nov. 12 for one of the Sept. 11 victims when a plane crashed into nearby houses, killing all aboard and five parishioners in the neighborhood. ''In these pews, mourning isn't a national rite, it's deeply personal,'' Geraghty says. ''Fortunately, we are near the ocean. People found some comfort in going down to the sea. We've offered a great deal of counseling for survivors, parents and children, staff at the school. We are focusing on prayer.''
Members of St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church pray, too, but not in their own pews. The tiny white church in the shadow of the World Trade Center was obliterated when the towers collapsed. A small but beloved shrine to faith in the financial district, it stood just 500 yards from the towers. Now descendents of the immigrant founders hold services in a Brooklyn church and are raising funds to rebuild.
On Wall Street, five blocks from the towers, Trinity Church, an 1846 Gothic revival jewel, came through the disaster with a few broken windows and a dense coating of debris. The Episcopal Church's chapel, St. Paul's, across Church Street from the site, also survived and almost immediately took on a new mission. It served as a place of respite, prayer and counseling for thousands of rescuers and recovery workers for eight months.
Trinity's rector, the Rev. Dr. Daniel Matthews, says many of the 600 Trinity members who took exhausting 12-hour shifts at St Paul's called it ''a transformational and spiritually moving experience, an encounter with self-giving and with acceptance like never before in their lives.''
Yet even as he plans for a series of memorial services, Matthews wonders, ''What will the anniversaries be like in the future? Will the significance fade away over time like Dec. 7, Pearl Harbor Day, remembered just casually in the news? We'll have to wait to see how the religious aspect of the date will emerge in time.''
Jews and Muslims are painfully aware of the dangerous few who vent political anger on religious groups. In the six weeks after the terrorist attacks, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) tallied 38 attacks on mosques, ranging from vandalism to firebombs and gunshots, and 289 assaults on people, homes and businesses thought to be Muslim. CAIR spokeswoman Hodan Hassan says mosques are following new safety checklists as they prepare for Sept. 11, 2002, and for the holy month of Ramadan, commencing Nov. 5.
Synagogues in New York, Washington and other cities will have concrete barriers, security officers and even staff to search purses and prayer-shawl bags after extremists issued threats against Jewish institutions worldwide. The extra precautions are in place for the High Holy Days, a 10-day period beginning at sunset Friday with Rosh Hashanah. High Holy Days conclude with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, a day of fasting and penitence.
As the Sept. 11 anniversary approaches, ''We are caught between wanting to say that everything is back to normal and the reality that we are still aghast at the level of evil in the world,'' says Rabbi Peter Rubenstein of New York's historic Central Synagogue. ''In a way, we Jews are fortunate. We don't have to write new liturgy to deal with this traumatic event. The ways of dealing with hope, rebirth, faith and history are already in place for us,'' Rubenstein says.
The Yom Kippur prayers include a memorial service where Jews pray together for those they have lost among friends and family, for those who have no one to mourn them, and for those who are part of the community of faith everywhere, such as victims of Sept. 11.
Central Synagogue has a special connection to that date. New York firefighters saved the magnificent Moorish-style synagogue on Lexington Avenue from destruction in a 1998 fire. On Sept. 9, 2001, Central dedicated the splendidly refurbished sanctuary with 70 firefighters joining the mayor and the governor as honored guests; one of the stained-glass windows was dedicated to fire crews.
Two days later, teams from the fire company that saved the synagogue were downtown battling the World Trade Center inferno. Central held memorial services for two Jewish firefighters last fall.
A year later, staff members of Luther Place Memorial Church in Washington, D.C., four blocks from the White House, recall the frightening hours when they saw the smoke rising from the Pentagon and the evacuation of the capital city's downtown and federal workforce. Weeks later, the city was traumatized again by the anthrax attacks that killed two area postal workers.
Luther Place scheduled extra prayer services and stepped-up volunteer programs. ''Our church is the center for several kinds of constructive peace-building activities. We had to stick,'' the Rev. Bob Holum says. ''Ultimately, we have become more involved in the city as people feel keenly that time is precious.''