By Fotis Kaliampakos
After 22 years, the Holy Liturgy sounded again in the Greek Orthodox Church of Saint Nicholas, for the first time on the day of its celebration on “Ground Zero” in Manhattan. One of the oldest Greek Orthodox churches in the USA, it was destroyed by fire and the falling ruins of the Twin Towers on the fatal 11th of September 2001. Thanks to the efforts and sacrifices of the whole Greek American community, the church has been now restored not only as a church for the Greek American Community and visitors from Greece, but also as a national monument for the United States in remembrance of the victims of these tragic events, as well as for all humanity.
That is also why the architect Santiago Calatrava was selected to create a monument that very well retains the spirit of the orthodox tradition while also appealing to all. The Pentelic marble, the same as on the Acropolis, shines among the buildings fraught with history. This area of the city is steeped in the history of the American Independence War, whereas inside the church the monks from Mountain Athos created an iconography that remains traditional but incorporates our time and New York into it. Apart from telling stories from the life of Saint Nicholas and Jesus on the cupola, surrounded by light, on the east end, Virgin Mary embraces and protects New York, as depicted in both a realistic and very orthodox way. Left of the entrance His Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, who on November 2, 2021, held the liturgy of the Door Openings, is depicted in a rare Orthodox Iconography wearing his glasses. For this occasion, part of the holy relics of St. Nicholas traveled to New York, as well as some remains, among them a half-burned Evangelism from the old church. His Holiness Archbishop Elpidoforos of America held another service, this time on July 4th, the day of American Independence, now that this church is inseparably combined with the fate of the American nation. His Excellency Archbishop, former of America Dimitrios was present for the historic evening Vespers on December 5th. He was the Archbishop in 2001 and led the restoration efforts of St. Nicholas Church. The church will now resume regular services and it will be open to all for a visit daily from 11 am to 2 pm.
The holy service was held by the Bishop of Medeia Apostolos who was quite moved as all, not only for the historical importance but also from the memories of the tragic events. “Today is a day of Resurrection”, said Bishop Apostolos in his speech and referred with tears in his eyes to the victims of 9/11.
One of the leaders of the efforts for the recreation of St. Nicholas, President of the foundation “Friends of St. Nicholas” Michael Psaros, shared with the Hellenic News of America his joy for this historical occasion and referred to the new church as the “Hagia Sophia” of the Greek Diaspora, meant to last as the one in Constantinople has for hundreds of years, and to serve, full of symbolism, the Greek American community as well as all people. He emphatically stated, “here is America, and no one can disturb the church’s peace and freedom”. In this way, he directly and sharply criticized Turkey’s policy to turn Hagia Sophia into a mosque, a direct assault on the values of civilized humanity, the principles of UNESCO on world cultural heritage, and the ideas of the founder of the Turkish state himself. Ms. Psaros used also the comparison with Parthenon, with not only the Pentelic marble but also other symbolic links to St. Nicholas at Ground Zero with a modern leading metropolis par excellence to the emblematic monument of the Acropolis at the very cradle of civilization.
Their joy and optimism for the church being a vehicle for the Greek American Community’s reaching out to all humanity was also expressed to the Hellenic News of America, by Demetri Papacostas, director of the Foundation of “St. Nicholas and National Shrine”, as well as Judge Theodore Bozonelis Archon Ekdikos and National Vice Commander of the Order of Saint Andrew the Apostle, the Archon of the Ecumenical Patriarchate.
At the reception that followed the service of December 6th in the neighboring Skinos restaurant, with the church and also the new “Freedom Tower” visible behind him, Mr. Richard Brown whose construction company took over in a critical time for the project and completed the construction was asked by Mr. Psaros to say a few words. Mr. Brown, in a deeply moving speech, said that after 30 years in construction and real estate this will be the work that makes him the proudest, especially towards his children and his father, who unfortunately could not see the work completed. As a Greek American, continued Mr. Brown, who grew up working in that area and was lucky to survive that day working on St. Nicholas was not only an honor but also healing, as Mr. Brown concluded “part of me died that day”. He was deeply moved that the road to healing and renewal can begin with this wonderful opening.