NEW YORK -- Faced with the most daunting task of their careers yesterday, religious leaders in and around New York tried to give solace to the inconsolable and make sense of the death and destruction that have dominated the lives of all Americans, especially those closest to the World Trade Center tragedy.

Houses of worship in and around the nerve center of devastation have been flooded with the religious and nonreligious, all searching for answers through the teachings of Christianity, Islam and Judaism.

Many of the clergy draped their buildings with American flags and began and ended their services with "America the Beautiful" and "God Bless America." They delivered messages to the millions of tearful, expectant eyes peering up at them, saying there is a reason to believe the world is good -- even in the face of terrorism and hatred.

"We have seen evil up close, and we struggle to understand," said a letter from Archbishop Edward Egan of New York, which was read in more than 400 churches across the state. "The events of September 11 have upset and confused us. But they have not shaken our faith. ... We are a united people, a people of courage."

The Rev. Joseph A. Cogo, pastor of Our Lady of Pompeii Church in Greenwich Village, read the letter, then led a ceremony at his church one mile from the site of the attack, where billowing smoke is constantly in the background.

"It's times like these we realize the real value in life," Cogo said. "Let's pray for the firefighters, volunteers and public officials who will mend the wound that has been inflicted upon us. For all those who died September 11, God will have them with him as a reward for their sacrifice."

Many people in the pews knew someone who perished in the buildings. Several knew some of the 10 firefighters from a nearby firehouse who lost their lives in the attack.

"It just doesn't seem real," said Susan Murray, who sat on the church steps at 7:30 a.m., waiting for the service that started at 9 a.m. Murray knew a firefighter and two others who were lost in the towers and arrived at the church early so she could have time alone there.

Across town in Brooklyn, Rabbi Niles Goldstein, founder of New Shul temple, said Friday night's service was "covered in a blanket of grief and pain."

"The only thing you can proffer is the ministry of presence. You just offer yourself, whether it's an ear to listen or a heart to lend," Goldstein said. "People just want community and want to know others care about them and they're not alone."

At St. Patrick's Cathedral, one of New York's most prominent churches, thousands filled pews at the morning masses.

Sgt. Edwin Stuart attended the 9 a.m. service in Army fatigues with three others from his military police platoon in Orangeburg, N.Y., who had been patrolling the World Trade Center site since Tuesday. Stuart's 25-year-old brother, Walwin, who is a Port Authority police officer, was among the first to arrive at the World Trade Center after the attacks and has been missing since.

"We're still praying for him to come out of there alive," said Stuart, 35, speaking slower as his eyes moistened. "I try to be strong, but there are certain times when things just bring on hurt and feelings of hopelessness."

'Put anger aside'

Monsignor Eugene V. Clark, rector of St. Patrick's Cathedral, used his sermon to stress the need for clear thinking.

"You and I should be careful not to stay on the level of anger and fury and demand retaliation," he said. "We must ... put anger aside -- not because it's not justified. Anger is a primitive thing. It slows good thinking. We are dealing with an uncommon evil in our time, and you and I probably know from life that you cannot reason with a fanatic."

On the Upper West Side, about 80 people in one of the chapels inside the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, the seat of New York's Episcopal diocese, heard clergy talk forcefully about peace and tolerance.

The Rev. Storm Swain stood in the aisle between the pews and talked about a Roman Catholic woman whose two sons worked in the towers -- one got out, one didn't.

"She told me she was so full of hate and anger one day. She said she knew it was wrong but that she just had to get it out," Swain said.