The people close to the St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church and National Shrine at Ground Zero in New York tend to think of the project as a divinely-influenced miracle.
After several years of delay marked by financial difficulties, bureaucracy and even a COVID-19 pandemic, construction has restarted this week. Funds are in place to open and consecrate the church by the 20th anniversary of 9/11—Sept. 11, 2021.
“We have the people, the plan, the organization and the money,” said Michael Psaros, vice chairman of the Friends of St. Nicholas, an independent nonprofit that is overseeing the church’s fundraising and construction.
Funds have been collected to build the church. Now fundraising is underway to set up a $20 million endowment fund to support church operations.
“This second effort to complete the Church presents our Orthodox and Hellenic-American community with a second and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to contribute to this historic event in our community,” Psaros said. “Friends hopes each and every Greek-American can donate/participate in any way they can. Every donor will be recognized.”
What’s kept the project on the straight and narrow through its setbacks is the idea that the new St. Nicholas Church can be a light to the world amongst the darkness, and a sacred place to honor the 3,000 martyrs who lost their lives when the World Trade Center Towers were attacked.
Project moving forward
Work on the $85 million church project, which stopped in 2017, restarted Aug. 3. A crane has arrived on site for the installation of a skylight. Waterproofing work is also underway.
Work is being handled by the original contractor, Skanska USA, under a set price contract.
Skanska has already completed billions of dollars in construction work at Ground Zero, according to a July 2020 newsletter from the Friends of St. Nicholas.
The coronavirus pandemic could alter what would normally be an 18-month construction schedule, but the church can still open by the anniversary date, even if every detail isn’t in place, said Richard Browne, CEO of the St. Nicholas construction work, during a July 1 interview for the ancientfaith.com podcast.
Browne described the new building as an “intricate jewel box in the middle of the World Trade Center complex.”
He added, “Of all the things I’ve done in my career, helping you finish this church will be what my family and my children will be most proud of me for.”
When work stopped on the church, it was estimated another $45 million was needed to finish the job and keep a $3 million contingency reserve.
“Friends of St. Nicholas started fundraising Jan. 2, 2020 and within 90 days were able to raise the additional funds needed in cash and pledges,” Psaros said.
As of July 29, they have received $27 million and $18 million in pledges.
A key player in making the new church and shrine a reality is Father Alex Karloutsos. He is Vicar General and Director of Public Affairs of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. He’s also a special assistant to His Eminence Archbishop Elpidophoros.
Father Alex has been involved in efforts to get the church rebuilt since the original 9/11 attack on St. Nicholas.
“One of the things that the dark forces were trying to do on Sept. 11, 2001, is create an element of despair, to take away hope, to envision the darkness. St. Nicholas is the light on the hill at Ground Zero,” he said.
Immediate support for the church/shrine project came from the Greek-American community, he said, but it’s also had the support of non-Greek donors around the world, from such diverse places as Bari, Italy, where the relics of St. Nicholas were originally presented; Russia, Qatar and Israel, and from sources ranging from the American Jewish Committee to electrical and plumbing unions.
The new fundraising effort for the endowment fund will pay for ongoing operations like utilities, security and maintenance at the church.
The Friends of St. Nicholas are off to a good start. A $600,000 gift has been given by Steve and Frosene Zeis to establish the endowment.
“Everyone alive today, whether they are five years old or 105 has an opportunity to contribute to the National Shrine, to literally be a part of history because this is a one moment in time event,” Psaros said.
“We encourage all of your readers, anyone that supports the newspaper, to please contribute to St. Nicholas and the funds will end up in the endowment.”
Donations can be made online at www.stnicholaswtc.org.
Friends of St. Nicholas
Friends of St. Nicholas was created after the church project, initially under the guidance of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, was suspended for two years due to lack of funds.
The Archdiocese fell into default with Skanska USA and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, unable to fulfill its contract to rebuild the church.
The Archdiocese was in danger of losing the property to New York, since activity had stopped on the new church.
The Port Authority wanted to build a vehicle security center beneath the original location of the church at 155 Cedar Street. At the same time, there was opposition from the Authority to rebuild the church near the Ground Zero memorial.
Several things happened to save the church and turn it into a National Shrine.
Chief among them was the appointment of a new Archbishop for the Archdiocese in 2019.
His Eminence, Archbishop Elpidophoros, whose name means “bearer of hope” supported the rebuilding project and took steps to make sure it was financially solvent and properly managed.
Also throwing in his support on rebuilding was New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. He supported relocating the church to Liberty Park, 130 Liberty Street, close to the Ground Zero memorial, and turning it into a National Shrine that would expand its role beyond a Greek Orthodox Church.
After a Jan. 2, 2020 meeting between Gov. Cuomo and Archbishop Elpidophoros, it was decided construction would start again on the new church, with conditions.
Because of the previous funding difficulties, Cuomo wanted to make sure an independent body oversaw finances and construction and so Friends of St. Nicholas was created.
The Archdiocese and the St. Nicholas Parish remain ex-officio members of Friends of St. Nicholas, but the archbishop appointed 13 laypeople with a variety of skill sets to lead the church rebuilding to its conclusion.
Daniel Mehiel was named chairman. He serves as chairman of U.S. Corrugated Inc. and was appointed by Gov. Cuomo as CEO of the Battery Park City Authority that operates the property where the World Trade Center was constructed 40 years ago.
Michael Psaros, is vice-chairman. He is a co-founder of KPS Capital Partners and a former treasurer with the Archdiocese.
Richard Browne was named CEO of the St. Nicholas construction project and is taking no fee for the work. He is a managing partner of the Sterling Project Development Group, known for sports-related construction projects, including construction of Citi Fields, where the New York Mets play.
Father Alex serves as an advisor.
The election of Gov. Cuomo as governor was a “seminal moment for the entire process,” Mehiel said.
“With Andrew’s guidance and, frankly his very specific dedicated control of the process, it got us to the point that we were able to sign a deal with the Port Authority that allowed the construction process to commence,” Mehiel said.
Father Alex said the church project received support from Gov. Cuomo and the previous Republican governor, George Pataki, but that Cuomo had a spiritual connection to the project as well.
Gov. Cuomo happens to share his birthday, Dec. 6, with St. Nicholas’ Feast Day.
“He believes that the element and hope of a church destroyed at Ground Zero tells a great story of New York, that in the midst of this despair, there’s hope. In the midst of darkness there is light,” Father Alex said.
Not just another church
One of the problems with fundraising for the church at the grassroots level the first time around was the failure to let the Faithful across the country appreciate the historic symbolism of the National Shrine, Psaros said in another Greek publication.
They weren’t inspired to participate in its triumph and saw St. Nicholas as just another New York City church, not something that belongs to the Faithful nationwide, he said.
He described the completed National Shrine as “the most visible symbol of Holy Orthodoxy, Hellenism, and the Hellenism ideal in America.”
By donating, Psaros hopes the Faithful in all 50 states will feel the responsibility and joy of possessing the only religious structure, the only Christian church of any denomination, at Ground Zero.
A Greek Orthodox Church as a National Shrine
For Greek-Americans the hope is that the St. Nicholas National Shrine will be a “Parthenon of Orthodoxy” in the United States, a symbol of the resurgence of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.
Psaros quotes a friend, Dimitri Papacostas who said, “Somehow all of the community’s aspirations, pride and redemption are enshrined in this magnificent edifice that is being built.”
But it will be much more than a Greek Orthodox Church.
On a site with no grave markers to mark the martyred dead, the church and its Justinian Cross will reflect the sacred ground on which it stands, sacred ground where the presence of God can be found.
And it will offer comfort and meditation to anyone visiting worldwide, regardless of religion or background. A non-denominational bereavement center will be located on the second floor of the Shrine.
“The St. Nicholas National Shrine and Church will become an open and inclusive witness of what is best in all human aspirations for the Divine,” reads a message from Archbishop Elpidophoros printed in the July 2020 newsletter of the Friends of St. Nicholas.
St. Nicholas will stand as a counterbalance to the actions of the Turks converting Hagia Sophia Church in Constantinople into a Mosque.
Many of St. Nicholas’ features are based on the Hagia Sophia Church, an intentional design by the Shrine’s architect, Santiago Calatrava.
- The icon over the south door of the Vestibule portrays Emperors Constantine offering the City and Justinian offering Hagia Sophia to the Theotokos and Divine Child.
- The architect morphed the image of the Holy Mother into the design of the church.
- To solidify the connection with Hagia Sophia, the dome of St. Nicholas will have 40 ribs, like Hagia Sophia, a “living reminder of the Great Church for all the world to see.”
“He took the architecture and the art from Hagia Sophia and encapsulated it at the heart of St. Nicholas at Ground Zero,” said Father Alex.
“No matter what happens to Hagia Sophia, the Great Church will always be ours. Let us make Saint Nicholas a witness to that,” states the message from Archbishop Elpidophoros.
For more information about the St. Nicholas project and to donate, visit Stnicholaswtc.org.
Contributions can also be mailed to:
FRIENDS OF ST. NICHOLAS
c/o Andrew Veniopoulos
8 East 79th Street
New York, NY 10075
Please make checks payable to:
Friends of St. Nicholas.