Sept. 11 — Dreams of St. Nicholas

The first thing police found at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church was a piece of a wing and landing gear from American Flight 11.

Then the World Trade Center’s north tower fell on the humble, white-washed walls of the tiny sanctuary across the street. It took time for work crews to find much of anything after that.

Eventually they found a paper icon of St. Dionysios of Zakynthos, but never found its frame or silver cover. They found an embroidered velvet cloth, but not the Bible it covered. They found a bell clapper, but not the bell. They found a silver hand in prayer, a wooden icon of a healing fountain, fragments of the marble altar, a twisted piece of a candelabrum and beeswax candles that survived the hellfire from above.

Church officials recovered part of a ceremonial book of New Testament epistles, with the smell of smoke in every page.

But the faithful have yet to recover the 700-pound fireproof steel safe from the office, the one containing the golden ossuary with its fragments of the bones of three saints, including their patron. St. Nicholas of Myra is the 4th century saint who in Western lands has evolved into St. Nick. Father John Romas explained all of this to workers at the New Jersey landfill as they sifted through mountains of rubble from ground zero.

“I told them about the relics of St. Nicholas and St. Katherine and St. Sava,” said Romas, priest at St. Nicholas for almost two decades and a chanter for years before that. “I told them about the safe on the top floor. I described everything in detail. But our little church was gone. There were no windows, no doors, no walls — nothing.”

The priest paused, trying to find English words for his emotions.

“What can we say? Someone may have picked up a gold box thinking there would be money in it and then they threw everything else away. Who knows? Who knows? Who knows? But this we do know — we will rebuild our church.”

The parish’s 80 families have every reason to be hopeful, said Romas, as they wait for city, state and regional officials to solve what the New York Times calls an “urban-planning Rubik’s Cube.” The goal? Build 10 million square feet of commercial space and rebuild lower Manhattan’s infrastructure, while creating a towering architectural masterpiece that honors those lost on a day that changed the city, the nation and the world.

Archbishop Demetrios of the Greek Orthodox Church in America has received assurances from New York Governor George Pataki and Mayor Michael Bloomberg that the sanctuary can be rebuilt next to the World Trade Center site. Architect Daniel Libeskind’s winning design for the site and memorial also includes St. Nicholas, the only church that was destroyed.

And the parish (www.stnicholasnyc.org) does control its site at 155 Cedar Street. But the old building was only 22 feet wide, 56 feet long and 35 feet high. Church leaders hope to raise funds to buy additional property to build a slightly larger church, in anticipation of new families and visitors to the Sept. 11 memorial.

The building that became St. Nicholas was built in 1832 as a private residence and even spent several years as a tavern. Greek immigrants bought it in 1916 and it was dedicated as a church the next year. Part of the church’s charm was its size — a Byzantine haven dwarfed by steel, glass, concrete and stress.

Every Wednesday, St. Nicholas invited workers and executives to spend the lunch hour in prayer.

In the future, Wednesdays will not be enough.

“Downtown New York City is crazy. It’s another world. Yet when you stepped inside St. Nicholas you were taken someplace totally different,” said John Pitsikalis, the parish council president. “You literally had the hubbub of the whole world of commerce only a few steps away and yet here was this small zone of peace and quiet and beauty.

“You would come in and the air would be still, the candles would be lit, there would be soft liturgical music and you would be surrounded by the icons.

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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.


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