New York — By Christopher Maag
Photo: Dimitrios Panagos
Thirteen years, one month and eight days ago, Archbishop Demetrios arrived at Ground Zero and saw his humble church reduced to a shallow pit, a grave. On Saturday, he returned with a bowl of holy water and a fistful of green basil. He dunked the leaves into the water, walked a tight circle, and shook droplets onto ground that someday will become the altar of a new church.
It was a blessing long delayed. For decades, St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church stood in the shadows of the Twin Towers. When the towers fell they destroyed the little church. In the years since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, workers cleared away the rubble from the towers, built a somber memorial, erected the skeleton of a soaring new train station, and built three enormous skyscrapers.
Saturday’s ceremony transcended the need of a parish for a place to meet, or even the desire of a religious denomination to reestablish its foothold in the heart of the city’s financial district. Rather, it signaled that in the complex jigsaw puzzle of properties at the redone World Trade Center, the final missing piece promises at last to be falling into place.
It also fulfills a vow, made by Archbishop Demetrios and then-governor of New York George Pataki within days of 9/11, to transform little St. Nicholas into a place of refuge for people of all faiths, and those of no faith at all.
“We had commerce. We had remembrance,” said Pataki on Saturday, who attended the ceremony along with New York Sen. Charles Schumer and former New York City Mayor David Dinkins. “But we had no faith. With this ceremony today, we replace that rock of faith.”
It is ironic perhaps that the rebirth of one of the smallest elements of the devastation wrought at Ground Zero took the longest to resolve. For years the project to rebuild St. Nicholas went nowhere, stalled by complex political negotiations and a lawsuit between the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America and the Port Authority.
Saturday’s ceremony offered a step forward, and also a chance at reconciliation. After reaching an initial agreement with the archdiocese on a plan to move the church to a new location, leaders of the Port Authority walked away from negotiations in 2009, alleging that church leaders wanted too many costly concessions and were delaying completion of the larger World Trade Center complex. Church leaders at the time accused the port of changing major elements of the agreement at the last moment.
Saying he spoke on behalf of Governor Christie and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Port Authority Executive Director Pat Foye offered a kind of apology.
“Five years ago, the Greek Orthodox Church had no choice but to sue the recalcitrant Port Authority,” Foye said.
The old St. Nicholas was a humble place, a former inn and tavern purchased in 1919 by five Greek families for $25,000 and converted into a church. Surrounded by surface parking lots, the little church served as a refuge for thousands of office workers, who regularly dropped by on their lunch breaks for a slice of quiet solitude.
The new building will be just a few feet from the old one, atop a parking structure that expands the footprint of the World Trade Center. The church will be small, at least in comparison to the mirrored office buildings towering above, but it will be anything but humble. Designed by Santiago Calatrava, the Spanish architect who also designed the World Trade Center’s stegosaurus-looking train station, the new church will include a ridged white dome supported by four stone columns.
When drawings of the church were released to the public last week, some commentators said it resembles a mosque, drawing faint echoes of the controversy in 2010 over plans to a build a mosque near the World Trade Center. The archbishop addressed those concerns directly, saying in his prepared remarks that the design takes inspiration from Hagia Sophia and the Church of the Holy Savior in Chora, two Christian churches in Istanbul that later were used as mosques.
“The dome is a typical Byzantine work of architecture invented by the Greeks,” Demetrios said.
It is a cliché of architectural drawings to show a planned building glowing from the inside, set apart from its darkened neighbors. But archdiocese leaders say their new church actually will glow. The exterior walls will be made of thin white Vermont marble mated to thick sheets of glass and backed by banks of LED lights. The combination will create a translucent monument that at night will “shine like a city on a hill,” Archbishop Demetrios said.
“No one has done this before. It will be the first building of its kind,” said Evagoras Constantinides, a church spokesman for the rebuilding project. “It’s going to be amazing.”
Under the Port Authority’s plans, the main entrance and security center to check all vehicles entering the World Trade Center site will be located right under the property on Cedar Street that was home to the old church. So the archdiocese and the Port Authority worked out a compromise where the new church will be built half a block to the east, on a concrete pedestal above the entrance doors to the vehicle ramp.
Construction of the church will take 18 to 24 months, Demetrios said. The archdiocese has already raised $7 million toward the $38 million construction cost. When the building is complete the archdiocese will relinquish its ownership of underground and air rights at the site of its old church and take ownership of the new building and the raised platform on which it sits, said Stavros Papagermanos, a spokesman for the congregation. That will prevent the Port Authority, a public agency, from owning a church.