Another sanctuary at Ground Zero

One of the hardest things to explain to people who have never worked in a real newsroom is why some events are news at one moment in time and in one location, but a similar story is not news at some other time in some other location.

So you are a reporter. Your desk phone rings and a caller wants you to write a story about the new fellowship hall that is being built at her suburban evangelical church. You ask, “Why is this a story?”

Well, says the caller, last week you wrote a big story about a church that was simply changing a window. Isn’t a fellowship hall a bigger story than a window?

But, you explain, that was an original window in the downtown Episcopal parish that is the city’s oldest church. There were question about its status as part of a historic site. The affair ended up being highly emotional and it provoked a fiery public meeting that revealed divisions in the congregation.

Silence. The caller says the newspaper simply doesn’t like evangelicals, but will cover anything that happens in an Episcopal church. She hangs up.

So with that in mind, let me acknowledge that I have received quite a few notes in recent weeks asking why GetReligion hasn’t commented on the sudden burst of coverage of the standoff between the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese and the officials guiding the Ground Zero work in New York City. The standoff focuses on the rebuilding of St. Nicholas Orthodox Church, a tiny, but highly symbolic, sanctuary was — literally — crushed by the collapse of the World Trade Center. The congregation is named in honor of St. Nicholas of Myra, the 4th century saint whose story eventually evolved in the West into St. Nicholas, as in “St. Nick.”

This story has received a mini-wave of ink, with stories running everywhere from Fox News to the New York Times. I have also received copies and extra copies of the press releases from the Greek archdiocese, offering its side of the story. One byline was especially interesting — atop the following column that ran in the Albuquerque Journal. The writer, Harry Moskos, is the retired editor of the Knoxville News Sentinel and he one of the editors whose interest in religion news led to the birth of my weekly national column with the Scripps Howard News Service.

I wrote back to one GetReligion reader noting that the coverage has all been rather perfunctory and that I didn’t see any real issues — for better or for worse — to note in a post. But, replied the reader, isn’t the story itself interesting and the fact that its being covered now and it wasn’t covered in the past?

In other words, “Why is this a news story at this moment in time and it wasn’t before?” That’s a variation on that old, old question: How do journalists define “news”?

First of all, I have always thought that this story is newsworthy — as you can tell from the column I wrote about it, which I called “Saints at Ground Zero.”

Please note the date on that column, as in Sept. 26, 2001.

In this case I was talking about “saints” as in the relics of the saints of this parish, relics lost when the sanctuary disappeared under the firefall of the Twin Towers. Here’s a piece of that column, built around an interview with the still grieving priest, Father John Romas:

The members of St. Nicholas do not think that any parishioners died when the towers, a mere 250 feet away, fell onto their small sanctuary in an avalanche of concrete, glass, steel and fire. Nevertheless, the Orthodox believers want to search in the two-story mound of debris for the remains of three loved ones who died long ago — the relics of St. Nicholas, St. Katherine and St. Sava. Small pieces of their skeletons were kept in a gold-plated box marked with an image of Christ. This ossuary was stored in a 700-pound, fireproof safe. …

It’s hard for outsiders to understand what this loss would mean to a parish, said Father Robert Stephanopoulos, dean of the city’s Cathedral of the Holy Trinity. These ties with the saints are more than symbolic. This mystery is rooted in centuries of tradition.

“We believe the Communion of the Saints is real and that we worship and pray with all the saints in heaven,” he said. “But these particular saints are also a part of that parish family, in a unique way. They have been a part of that parish for many years and, of course, the people want to see these relics recovered. Yes, this is a family matter.”

So why is the story of this church’s attempts to rebuild news RIGHT NOW? Why does it matter that Orthodox leaders are struggling in negotiations, while, well, efforts to build another sanctuary nearby are receiving so much positive and negative attention?

You see, that question simply answered itself, didn’t it?

You can see the context in this passage from one of the best stories written about the plight of St. Nicholas, which was produced by reporter Nicole Neroulias and the Religion News Service team.

Construction has begun on the 9/11 memorial and several of the major buildings planned for the 16-acre site, with estimated completion dates between 2011 and 2014. Little St. Nicholas, however, remains in limbo.

Negotiations with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey for a land swap and public funding reached an impasse more than a year ago. The stalemate is only now generating public attention due to heated protests over Park51, a proposed Islamic community center several blocks away that’s been dubbed the “Ground Zero mosque” by critics.

“St. Nicholas has nothing to do with this mosque controversy. We believe in religious freedom, and whether the mosque should or shouldn’t be there, that’s a whole different dialogue,” said the Rev. Mark Arey, archdiocese spokesman. “But it’s a rising tide that lifts all boats. People say the mosque has been greenlighted, but why not this church?”

The details of the standoff about the rebuilding process are quite complex and you can read them for yourself. Both sides are speaking out — rather loudly.

But the key to the whole affair is that St. Nicholas is suddenly a story because journalists have linked it to a “bigger” and more “important” story. This tiny parish was not news at one point in time. It became news at another point in time and we all know why. That’s the news business. You see?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Dave

    Yes, it’s clear that what is news depends on context. But please forgive a non-journalistic question I’m eager to have answered: Did the congregation recover the ossuary?

  • Ed Mechmann

    Reporters interested in irony and a fresh angle on this story might also want to walk four blocks from Ground Zero to visit Our Lady of Victory Church on William Street. It was erected after World War II in thanksgiving for victory in that war, and as tribute to American war dead. Most interestingly, its name recalls the title of Mary attributed to her after the victory of Catholic forces against the Turks at the Battle of Lepanto (1571).

  • tmatt


    The massive cast iron safe in which the relics were stored simply vanished. Try to imagine the force it would take to do that. The amount of heat and weight.

    It vaporized?

  • Nicole Neroulias

    Thanks for addressing this — now I can send this link to all the Greeks and Greek Americans who’ve been asking me the same question for months! (Until last week, of course… though, now they’re wondering when my follow-up story will run.)

    I didn’t specifically mention the lost relics in my RNS piece, but check out the 2005 Religion & Ethics Newsweekly interview with John Pitsikalis, who was the St. Nicholas parish council president at the time. Of the relics and the other precious things the church lost on 9/11, he says, “Maybe it went up to heaven with them. Maybe that’s what it was necessary to do.”

  • Jerry

    But the key to the whole affair is that St. Nicholas is suddenly a story because journalists have linked it to a “bigger” and more “important” story. This tiny parish was not news at one point in time. It became news at another point in time and we all know why. That’s the news business. You see?

    That parallel’s your coverage of the loss of the relics in 2001. Of course, as you point out, there is a particular time when some stories become newsworthy. But I think it’s also important to acknowledge that some stories are not.

    Also, I think the scare quotes around the words “bigger” and “important” are spot on. Because, at least to me, reporting the sensational is not what journalism should be about. Joining in a media feeding frenzy about a big, flashy, controversial story is not necessarily reporting news.

    Many of the news stories I read are not about controversy but are telling me something I don’t know but am interested in (which is also a definition of the word “news”). …

  • tmatt


    The quote marks are there around “bigger” and “important” for a journalistic reason — a stress that, after all, journalists have the power to apply those words on a case by case basis.

  • Dave

    Terry, it more likely pulverized than vaporized but, in any event, deprivation of this kind of link with the past is a great loss.

  • Paul of Alexandria

    Re the safe with relics: read “Ghosts of Vesuvius: A New Look at the Last Days of Pompeii, How Towers Fall, and Other Strange Connections ” by Charles R. Pellegrino. The forces involved in the Twin Towers collapse were similar to those experienced in volcanic eruptions, and were tremendous.

    The reason for the importance of the St. Nicholas story is simple, and touched upon if skirted around by the article: why is the Cordoba Mosque project receiving so much attention while St. Nicholas is not? Why are the New York City and even the Federal governments paying so much attention to one – “greenlighting it”, while they ignore the other? Why are so many of the truly controversial aspects of the Cordoba Mosque being ignored by the press? Is there preferential treatment being given to one religion over another?

  • Nicole Neroulias


    It’s tempting to draw comparisons between Park51 and St. Nicholas, but the situations are completely unrelated. (The differences are noted in my RNS story, and I went into more detail on that angle in my Beliefnet blog — click on my name for the link.)

    The St. Nicholas-Port Authority stalemate involves hammering out a deal for a property swap, public funding, costly security requirements and general Ground Zero bureaucracy (everything down there is behind schedule and overbudget); the Park51 proposal, approved by its neighborhood officials, is on private property, albeit within a 15-minute walk of the St. Nicholas site.

    But, more than a year after the PA ended negotiations, the church’s supporters correctly see an opportunity here to use the Park51 publicity — though they admit it’s an unrelated situation — to get their negotiations back on track. It’s a convenient hook that helps the St. Nicholas limbo suddenly become news, although the story itself hasn’t changed in months.

  • tmatt


    Which is the precise point of my post.

    Thanks for your input.