By Sophia A. Niarchos
OYSTER BAY, N.Y. – The people of St. Nicholas Church in lower Manhattan have come to learn to play a waiting game. Waiting for funds, waiting for property with which and on which to rebuild their beloved and history-laden House of God.
Since the church was destroyed on 9/11, they have come to know the kindness and generosity of people, organizations and municipalities throughout the world to the tune of approximately $2 million. Donations have come from the Emir of Qatar, who has donated $100,000; the people of Greece who raised $375,000 through a telethon and the Greek government which contributed $750,000; the Ecumenical Patriarchate has given $50,000; *e-Trade then-CEO Christos Cotsakos, donor of $250,000; and such distant and diverse sources as a Jewish organization in Boston ($10,000), the daughter of an Armenian man who was given refuge by Cretans during the Armenian genocide ($100,000) and schoolchildren from non-Greek schools in California whose donation, while not as large as any of these, held significant meaning because of the cards and letters accompanying it.
According to the community’s president, John Pitsikalis, who also serves as the fund-raising and rebuilding chairman, two fund-raising dinner dances held by the community since the attacks have raised $40,000 and two shows by Greek-American comedians and their comedy-producing friends (including Ellen Karis, Jim Mendrinos, Bill Michaels, Nicole Korkolis, James Mallios, Val Kappa, Mike Buchetti and Tom Cotter), brought in nearly $1,000 to benefit the church. In-kind donations from people in the construction and steel industries have also been pledged.
“Despite all of these generous donations and the $1 million in insurance monies, we are at least $2 million away from the $5 million or more we will need to reconstruct the church and a cultural center we would like to build,” Pitsikalis said. “The center would offer solace and an opportunity to reflect on the events of 9/11 to passers-by. Though secondary in importance to the rebuilding of the church itself, it would also give us the opportunity to share our history and culture with those who visit.”
The church history goes back to 1925, and, as noted by church Treasurer Olga Pavlakos, whose grandparents were among those who founded the church and whose family over three generations has been involved in caring for it, the community has experienced increases and declines in its population over the last 75 years.
“My grandfather and grandmother, Michael and Georgia Pavlakos, came from Greece and helped raise money to build the church. My father, George, was baptized here in 1926, my parents were married here in 1959, and my brother and I were baptized here.
“The community struggled financially when the area changed and many Greeks moved away in the ’40s. When I was little, I remember bringing buckets of hot water from the third floor to the first so we could clean candles to use them again. We didn’t have hot water on the first floor.
“The building of the World Trade Center and Battery Park City in the ’70s and ’80s brought more people to our church, and we were experiencing growth,” she said.
“In 2000, many young professionals were moving into the area, into Battery Park City,” added Pitsikalis. “They were a polished, educated group with children and wanted a Greek Orthodox church for their families. At the time of the attacks, they comprised a good twenty percent of our church population.”
He reflected on how the church, which was open during the work week on Wednesdays, brought in many non-Greeks.
“The first Wednesday of every month we had Divine Liturgy, and the other three Wednesdays George Liaskos and I would alternate in coming in and opening the church, and we would have recordings of Byzantine religious music playing. Between 11 in the morning and 3 in the afternoon, the church was full of people.
“The last three years have been tough; but now we have to have patience and must wait until the time comes when we can rebuild.”
Until then, a core of regular parishioners of the St. Nicholas community has been attending Divine Liturgy at Sts. Constantine and Helen Church in Brooklyn where, Pitsikalis said, they have found in the parish’s former and current presidents Elias Seremetis and Jim Tampakis and its pastor Fr. Demetrios, “very supportive friends.” St. Nicholas’ longtime pastor Fr. John Romas celebrates Liturgy with Fr. Demetrios, and his wife and 95-year-old mother-in-law, Presbytera Papachristou also attend.
“While so many had to go through therapy after the tragedy to begin the healing process, Presbytera Papachristou was one person who kept her wits about her from the beginning, telling us not to worry, the church would be rebuilt,” Pitsikalis remembered.
“Today we hear many comments from people that we have enough money, but they don’t realize that what we have doesn’t buy much any more.”
The community, he said, has been kept informed and is understanding about the time needed to proceed, especially as they await the necessary Port Authority acquisition of property around the St. Nicholas site. Once acquired, the property will be apportioned to those seeking to build in the area.
A joint committee, comprised of Pitsikalis, Olga Pavlakos and Fr. John from St. Nicholas and Bishop Savas, Fr. Alexander Karloutsos, Michael Jaharis, Peter Dion, and Jerry Demetriou from the archdiocese, is responsible for decisions made relative to the rebuilding.
When the land and monies become available, the people of St. Nicholas will come into the rebuilding with some artifacts found at the site of the disaster by salvage workers: Two icons, one of St. Dionysios of Zakinthos, the other of the Zoodochos Peghe, a hand-embroidered velvet Bible covering, a small bell that hunt next to the altar, and wax candles fused into a serpentine tangle. Through his efforts, Fr. John also found a marble piece of the altar.
As is usual with catastrophic events, St. Nicholas’ destruction has brought about some positive developments.
“We have made new friends of the members of Sts. Constantine and Helen and Peter Zaharatos, a member of the board of our church, became engaged to a member of that community, Maria Masourides.”
“The one thing you can say about our church,” Pavlakos asserted, “is that whoever stepped foot in it never left. People felt welcomed because we accepted them unconditionally. What a church was meant to be is what St. Nicholas was.”
If you would like to contribute to the rebuilding of St. Nicholas Church, send your donation to: St. Nicholas Rebuilding Fund, P.O. Box 1170, Bowling Green Station, NY 10274-1170.