Sanctuary to replace the only church destroyed on September 11
The domed shrine in Lower Manhattan, where workers are busy installing translucent Greek marble in time for ceremonial lighting on September 10, bears little resemblance to the modest parish church John Katsimatides discovered there has years.
He often visited the ancient Greek Orthodox Church of St. Nicholas to say a prayer and light a candle as he traveled to or returned from work nearby on the 104th floor of the North Tower of the World Trade Center. John Katsimatides “was delighted that there was a Greek church right across from where he worked,” recalls his sister, Anthoula Katsimatides.
John, 31, a corporate bond broker at Cantor Fitzgerald, was among nearly 3,000 people killed in the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
The old St. Nicholas Church was also destroyed that day. Although no one was killed in the building, it was crushed under the collapsing south tower, the only place of worship destroyed in the attacks.
“When we found out (…) that Saint Nicholas was also lost, we thought there was some kind of message there, that the victims did not die alone,” said Anthoula Katsimatides. “I remember my mother saying that… John and the other victims were rocked by Saint Nicholas.”
This September 10, the eve of the 20 years after the deadliest terrorist attack in the country, she will attend the lighting ceremony of the Greek Orthodox Church of St. Nicholas and the National Shrine, being built for replace the parish church and honor those who have been lost.
The ceremony will be a milestone in a project long plagued by bureaucratic tangles and a financial crisis, but now nearing completion next year.
“St. Nicholas brings me closer to my brother,” said Anthoula Katsimatides.
The lighting of the church will come from inside. Through an innovative process, the interior lights are designed to illuminate thin panels of marble, extracted from the same Pentelic vein in Greece that gave birth to the Parthenon, the ancient temple of Athens.
The church is built in a small elevated park overlooking the World Trade Center Memorial Square, near the reflecting pools that mark the location of the Twin Towers. A huge bronze sphere that once stood between the towers now stands, dented and damaged, in the grounds just beyond the chapel gates. Groups of tourists and schools often gather on a staircase leading to the shrine.
One of the most visible signs of the unfinished work of the Ground Zero rebuilding effort has been the shrine’s concrete shell, traversed daily by floods of tourists. Work on installing its marble cladding has proceeded at a rapid pace in recent weeks, in time for the lighting of the ceremony, although the church is not expected to be completed until next year.
The church is designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, with its dome, windows and iconography inspired by ancient historic Byzantine churches, including the famous Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. A Greek iconographer incorporates traditional motifs with images of 9/11, including tributes to the rescuers killed.
Given its prime location near the 9/11 Memorial and Museum, the shrine is destined to become an iconic American expression of Eastern Orthodoxy, an ancient Christian fellowship that still predominates in Greece and much of Europe. from the East, but which has a small part of the American Christian. population.
In addition to its shrine, the shrine will have a separate space for meditation and reflection for people of all faiths.
“It’s going to have a rich liturgical life” as a church, said Michael Psaros, vice president of Friends of St. Nicholas, the private entity overseeing the project in cooperation with the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. “But this beautiful shrine that we are building belongs to New York, it belongs to the United States, and it belongs to the world.”
Greek immigrants founded St. Nicholas on Cedar Street in Lower Manhattan in 1916, turning a former tavern into a church and topping it with a small belfry and a cross. According to parish tradition, newly arrived Greek immigrants came there to thank Saint Nicholas, patron saint of sailors.
“Everything we did in Saint Nicholas was completely voluntary,” said Olga Pavlakos, vice-president of the parish. “It was a poor parish.
Over the decades, even as the tiny church was islanded by a parking lot and overshadowed by the World Trade Center, parish leaders refused to sell to greedy land developers.
After September 11, the Archdiocese always intended to rebuild, but its location on Liberty Street was not settled until after a dispute between the Archdiocese and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
But costs have climbed beyond expectations and construction came to a halt in late 2017 after the Archdiocese fell behind in payments.
The newly created Friends of St. Nicholas, led by a core of wealthy Greek-Americans, took over the management of the project. He has completed fundraising for the church, with costs estimated at nearly $ 85 million, and is now raising an endowment for maintenance and security.
Archbishop Elpidophoros, who began leading the National Archdiocese in 2019, said the symbolism of the shrine is important.
“Ground Zero is known worldwide as a place of religious hatred and violence, and the results of that religious hatred and violence,” he said. “Part of our responsibility was to restore the reputation of religion (…) as a factor in uniting peoples.
The project has personal significance for Rev. Alex Karloutsos, longtime Vicar General of the Archdiocese. After the September 11 attacks, he was part of the clergy providing spiritual support to recovery workers.
“People at that time were looking for something sacred, because they had just experienced what was wrong,” he said.
Among the surviving artifacts of St. Nicholas was a paper icon of St. Dionysius of Zakynthos – the patron of forgiveness for forgiving his brother’s murderer.
“This icon was very poignant, because at the end of the day, in order for us to come out of our hatred, we even had to forgive those who destroyed our siblings,” Karloutsos said.
The Associated Press religious coverage receives support from the Lilly Endowment via The Conversation US. The AP is solely responsible for this content.