New York.- By Apostolos Zoupaniotis
On December 6 our Church is celebrating St. Nicholas Feast Day and for the parishioners of St. Nicholas in Manhattan it will mark 19 years without their beloved little church, built in the southern nose of Manhattan to welcome the Greek sailors arriving to the New World.
The destruction of the church during the September 11 terrorist attack, signaled the beginning of an Odyssey full of hopes and failures, but now all indications point out that by September 11, 2021, the exterior of the Church and substantially all of the interior will be completed.
“In time for the 20th anniversary of the September 11th tragedy and the 100th anniversary of the creation of the Holy Archdiocese of America”, as Dennis Mehiel and Michael Psaros – Chairman and Vice Chairman respectively of the “Friends of St. Nicholas”- told the “Greek News”; stressing that the National Shrine is no longer a dream, a vision, a plan, but rather a reality.
The “Friends of St. Nicholas” is a not-for-profit organization with the exclusive responsibility for raising the money to rebuild St. Nicholas, supervise and manage its construction, and conduct audits. And as Mike Psaros made us clear – before the two prominent Greek American businessmen and lay leaders of our Archdiocese agree with the interview – “we had nothing to do with any of the events that happened before the work stoppage, and we have been consistent with any/all media that we only talk about today and the future.”
The interview also coincides with the launching of the new web site www.StNicholasWTC.org that will provide information about the Shrine to anyone interested in Holy Orthodoxy and the success of the St. Nicholas National Shrine; and to read the Monthly Newsletter that is sent to all stakeholders of the National Shrine.
Mr Mehiel and Mr Psaros replied jointly in writing, to questions submitted to them. The full text of the interview is as follows:
Who are the Friends of St. Nicholas and what is its mission?
“Friends of St. Nicholas” (“Friends”) is a not-for-profit organization with the exclusive responsibility for raising the money to rebuild St. Nicholas, supervise and manage its construction, and conduct audits.
“Friends” is managed by a thirteen-member Board of Trustees. His Eminence, Archbishop Elpidophoros of America, serves as the Honorary Chairman of the Board on behalf of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. Father Alexander Karloutsos, Vicar General of the Archdiocese, serves as Spiritual Advisor and is playing a critical role in all aspects of Friend’s efforts. Dennis Mehiel is the Chairman of the Board, Michael Psaros is the Vice Chairman, and Richard Browne is the COO of construction. The balance of the board includes a group of exceedingly accomplished Orthodox Christian business people and lawyers from across the country, including John Catsimatidis, who is also the Vice Chairman of the Archdiocesan Council. The members of the Board of Trustees are deeply committed to completing the National Shrine and have put our reputations on the line by volunteering to lead this effort.
Friend’s progress since launching on January 2, 2020 has exceeded all expectations. We created the proper organization, structure, controls, reporting and plans required to complete the National Shrine. We then quickly raised the funds necessary to complete the construction, which commenced off-site in January 2020 and on-site at Ground Zero on August 3, 2020. The National Shrine is no longer a dream, a vision, a plan, but rather a reality.
How does Friends of St. Nicholas communicate with the many different stakeholders of this project – the Faithful, the Omogenia, the public authorities including the State of New York and the Port Authority of NY and NJ and the world?
“Friends of St. Nicholas” is committed to total transparency, accountability and disclosure regarding all of its activities. In furtherance of this commitment, we are thrilled to announce the launching of our new web site this week. We encourage everyone to go to www.StNicholasWTC.org to visit our new web site, and ask that you please forward the link to anyone interested in Holy Orthodoxy and the success of the St. Nicholas National Shrine.
On the website you will be able to read our Monthly Newsletter that is sent to all stakeholders of the National Shrine. We just released the November 2020 issue. The Monthly Newsletter includes an Archpastoral exhortation from His Eminence, Archbishop Elpidophoros, on the transcendent nature of this undertaking. Dennis Mehiel, Michael Psaros and Richard Browne provide an update on matters involving construction, fundraising and expenditures. We encourage everyone to sign up to receive the Monthly Newsletter.
The leadership of Friends also provides regular updates to the Port Authority of NY and NJ, the Archdiocese, its Executive Committee and the Archdiocesan Council.
Tell us about the role of Governor Cuomo and the Port Authority?
We are very grateful for the unconditional support of Governor Cuomo and the Port Authority for our efforts to complete the National Shrine. Governor Cuomo and the Port Authority are the only reason we have the second opportunity to pursue this great Ministry. Mr. Rick Cotton and Mr. Steve Plate of the Port Authority are saints.
Governor Cuomo truly understands the importance of the National Shrine. His personal conviction to St. Nicholas is clear and deeply moving. When he met with His Eminence, Archbishop Elipidophoros,at the Archdiocese on January 2, 2020, he said “St. Nicholas is not just a national shrine, but rather a global shrine. St. Nicholas is a symbol of peace and unity to a country that is desperately divided and a world which is in chaos.” On August, 3, 2020, when we launched construction on site at Ground Zero, Governor Cuomo proclaimed from the balcony of the Church, “In New York, we know from experience that rebuilding after a crisis means much more than just restoring bricks and mortar or reviving an economy; it also requires healing a broken spirit. This Church helps that healing, and it will be a national shrine, rising on a place made sacred by the suffering that took place here and will send a powerful message to the world that New York is a state made stronger by tolerance and our respect for one another.”
What made two very busy businessmen like Michael Psaros and Dennis Mehiel to get actively involved?
We had a moral obligation to our Faith, our Church, our Families and the Omogenia to do something. The St. Nicholas project was abandoned for two years from a physical construction standpoint. The National Shrine was wrapped in a white garbage bag and otherwise exposed to the elements. The project was dead. When the work stopped, it was humiliating to Greek Americans across the country and to Greeks worldwide. The Archdiocese worked tirelessly on efforts to restart the project, but in time, all stakeholders agreed a radical new approach was required. This is why Friends of St. Nicholas was created in 2019. Father Karloutsos encouraged us (Mehiel – Psaros – Catsimatidis) to take the lead and do something.
On a personal level, nothing has equally humbled and inspired us as the importance of this “diakonia” to build the National Shrine. The weight and responsibility on our shoulders is extraordinary. There is nothing in our business careers and in our decades of services to the Church in other capacities that compares to this responsibility. This undertaking is like an act of prayer and is being conducted with great solemnity. We are all humbled by the collective prayers of the omogenia to complete this Ministry.
What were your emotions on August 3rd when construction mobilized on-site?
It was an incredibly emotional day. Everyone in attendance for the ceremony understood the magnitude of the occasion. We were all witnesses to history. The resumption of construction at St. Nicholas is a powerful symbol to the world of the resurrection of Ground Zero and New York, and the determination of the Greek American Faithful and our Omogenia to proclaim our Faith in the heart of the most powerful city in the world. The global media coverage of the events on August 3rd was extraordinary – true global media coverage. This is why St. Nicholas matters. The world is watching.
How difficult was to put St. Nicholas reconstruction back on track?
The creation of Friends of St. Nicholas required a year of dialogue involving Governor Cuomo and the Port Authority in 2019 regarding matters of governance and the scope of Friend’s responsibilities. The discussions were constructive and resulted in an organization in which all stakeholders have confidence. “Friends” thanks Ted Augustinos (pro-bono counsel for the organization of Friends) and Elaine Allan (Treasurer of the Holy Archdiocese and a national expert on not-for-profit organizations) and all the other lawyers and experts who volunteered and are volunteering their services. This is a true team effort of faithful, creative, talented and passionate people. When his Eminence, Archbishop Elipidophoros was Enthroned, Friends was ready to go behind his leadership.
How much the project will cost?
The estimated cost to complete the National Shrine is $45 million, including a $3 million contingency reserve. Friends has already expended almost $10 million on construction to date, leaving $32million to $35 million of expenditures to go (depending on the use of the contingency).The total cost of the National Shrine from the inception of the project is approximately $82 million, including expenditures related to architectural and legal costs.
When are we expecting to complete St. Nicholas Shrine and who is responsible for construction for “Friends”?
The exterior of the Church and substantially all of the interior will be completed by September 11, 2021, in time for the 20th anniversary of the September 11th tragedy and the 100th anniversary of the creation of the Holy Archdiocese of America. We are planning to have an extraordinary weekend of events on that day centered around the consecration of the National Shrine.
Richard Browne volunteered to act as COO of Construction for Friends and is responsible for supervising the construction. We are grateful that the construction of the Church is now in professional, experienced and accomplished hands. Richard is the Managing Partner of the Sterling Project Development Group, an affiliate of Sterling Equities. Richard worked with Skanska to determine the cost to complete the construction of the National Shrine, negotiated the new contract with Skanska along and our pro-bono counsel, and is involved on a daily basis with every aspect of construction. He is being assisted by Louis Katsos, whose advice and wisdom on construction matters is invaluable.
Tell us about the Iconography?
His Eminence, Archbishop Elpidophoros, asked His Grace Bishop Joachim, to work with Father Lukas of Mt. Athos to design the Iconography Program for the Church. We met last month, and the design program for the Iconography is breathtaking. The objective of the Iconography is multi-faceted. First, we are a Church of the Resurrection and it will stand witness to the Resurrection of Ground Zero and New York. Second it will incorporate certain unique aspects of New York City and the tragic events that occurred on September 11th. Finally, it will be the first time that millions of people from all over the world, of all faiths, are exposed to Orthodox Iconography. We believe the Iconography alone will make the National Shrine a must visit destination in New York City and pilgrimage site for all those effected directly and indirectly by September 11th and all the events the tragedy subsequently unleashed.
Explain the fundraising success of Friends of St. Nicholas?
The enthronement of His Eminence, Archbishop Elipidophoros, was one of two conditions precedent that allowed Friends of St. Nicholas to raise $45 million of cash and pledges. He restored the credibility of the Archdiocese with Governor Cuomo, the Port Authority and the major donors. His Eminence is a man of action, not talk. Donors responded to his clear vision for the Orthodox Church in America in the 21stcentury, and the critical role of St. Nicholas National Shrine as part of his vision. He made the National Shrine one of his top priorities. The major donors quite literally voted with their checkbooks.
The creation of “Friends” was the second condition precedent. Donors put their trust in the professionalism, accountability and transparency of our organization.
The extraordinary pistis, philantropia and philotimo of our major donors are responsible for the construction of St. Nicholas. Approximately 25 families and family foundations donated over $1 million or more with the Spanos Family (AXIOI!) setting the standard with a stunning $10 million donation. Eight institutions donated over $1 million or more, with Leadership 100 leading the way. Since we commenced construction on-site on August 3rd, we have received $2 million of donations, including a $1 million donation by Arthur and Denise Katsaros in October 2020 (AXIOI!).
“Friends” has raised approximately $45 million. Today, we have approximately $16.6 million of cash on hand, $19 million of pledges and have expended $10 million of cash on actual construction. The timely conversion of the pledges into cash is critical to our continued progress.
Will additional funds be raised for an Endowment?
“Friends” intends to raise an additional $20 million to endow the National Shrine. The endowment presents the Omogenia with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be part of this historic project and Ministry. We are very grateful to Mr. and Mrs. Zeis for their $600,000 donation to the endowment (AXIOI!). Income from the endowment will help pay for the costs associated with building maintenance and security.
What is the importance for the Greek American Community to have a Church in one of the most important monuments of the modern American history?
The National Shrine is the most visible symbol of Holy Orthodoxy, Hellenism and the Hellenic Ideal in America. The National Shrine will be the most prominent Orthodox Church in the U.S. and an Icon of Holy Orthodoxy to the world.
The National Shrine is the only religious structure and only Christian Church of any denomination at Ground Zero. We believe the National Shrine will be the most visited Church in New York and one of the most visited in the U.S. Tens of millions of people from around the country and around the world come to Ground Zero every year and will visit the National Shrine to pray, reflect, seek solace and visit the non-denominational bereavement center.
No other Orthodox Church in the United States will enjoy the stature and visibility of the National Shrine, which will be our American St. Sophia and our American Parthenon.
The architecture of the National Shrine is a modern interpretation of St. Sophia in Constantinople. As we all know, the Turkish Government defied world opinion and its own history when it converted St. Sophia from a museum into a mosque. The National Shrine is the daughter of St. Sophia, and will stand as a witness not only to the vitality of Holy Orthodoxy, but also for America’s commitment to religious freedom. The National Shrine will be a defiant symbol of opposition to the forces of intolerance everywhere in the world.
Finally, the Church, with its Justinian Cross will tower over what is a now a gravesite for 3,000 martyrs of all faiths who were murdered on September 11, 2001.
What is your appeal to the Greek Americans?
Our appeal to Greek Americans must begin with a profound statement by Mr. Demetri Papacostas, who said, “Somehow all of our community’s aspirations, pride and redemption are enshrined in this magnificent edifice that is being built.”
We ask that Greek Americans reflect on this statement and contribute to the National Shrine as a matter of conscience.
The Faithful are now presented with a second opportunity to participate in something truly historic.
The National Shrine will recognize each and every single donor. The logia from the Faithful should be recorded and recognized for posterity. A hundred years from now, visitors to the National Shrine will know who contributed to its creation.
This is a once-in a lifetime opportunity to donate to the National Shrine. An opportunity like this will not present itself again.
Please donate online – www.stnicholaswtc.org
Or, please mail donations to:
Friends of St. Nicholas
c/o Mr. Andrew Veniopoulos
8 East 79th Street
New York, NY 10075