Wednesday, September 30, 2020

The Rev. John Romas, Leader of Greek Church at Ground Zero, Dies at 86

Hellenic News
Hellenic News
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The New York Times

After St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Lower Manhattan was destroyed on Sept. 11, 2001, by the collapse of the World Trade Center nearby, the Rev. John D. Romas held his small congregation together as its worship services moved to Brooklyn and instilled in his parishioners the hope that they would live to see their church rebuilt. He, however, did not.

Father Romas died of pancreatic cancer on Jan. 24, the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of New York announced. He was 86.

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Construction of the new St. Nicholas National Shrine did not begin until last fall, at a site overlooking the National September 11 Memorial from an elevated park. It has been designed by Santiago Calatrava to evoke the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. Its translucent marble walls will glow at night. Archbishop Demetrios, the primate of the Greek Orthodox Church in America, has called it a “place of pilgrimage for our nation.”

It will be, in short, a far cry from the parochial church Mr. Romas joined in 1972, more than a decade before his ordination, when the first trade center was under construction. St. Nicholas was a remnant of a once-vibrant Greek community. Until 2001, the church was best known for sponsoring a celebration of the Epiphany each January, during which divers competed to retrieve a cross from the Hudson River.

Parishioners worshiped on the ground floor of a modest four-story building at 155 Cedar Street. On the exterior, about the only indication of any religious function was a small bell cote at the parapet.

Father Romas said he felt predestined to lead St. Nicholas. His father, Demetrios Rampaounis, a flour miller, encouraged him as a boy to tend the church of St. Nicholas in Dorvitsia, Greece, where he grew up. He was born on April 10, 1929, and emigrated to the United States in 1952. That year he married Lorraine Papachristou, who survives him.

He was ordained in 1984. In 1987, Archbishop Iakovos appointed him the pastor of St. Nicholas Church downtown — a spiritual retreat for office workers on weekdays and a parish church on Sundays for about 40 to 50 worshipers who commuted to Lower Manhattan from Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens, New Jersey and Westchester County.

No one was in the church on the Tuesday morning in 2001 when the terrorist attack occurred. The building was compressed into a pile of rubble about two feet high by the debris falling from 2 World Trade Center. “I was crying like a baby,” Father Romas recalled.

He managed to extract some remnants from the ruins, including part of the wooden kouvouklion, a bier representing the tomb of Jesus that figures in Good Friday services, together with an icon called the epitaphios, showing Jesus after being taken down from the cross.

“It’s a very symbolic and important piece of a church,” said Peter Drakoulias, a former board member of St. Nicholas, who combed the wreckage with Father Romas, “so finding it, or at least a piece of it, was almost miraculous when you think of the devastation that occurred.”

Father Romas did not give up the hope of re-establishing the parish, whose members he served after 2001 at SS. Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Brooklyn, where a number of them continue to worship. At times he was the public face of the broader redevelopment effort.

The archdiocese said he “anxiously awaited the completion of his beloved St. Nicholas.”

Housed within the shrine will be a new kouvouklion — dedicated to Father Romas.

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