By PETER SMITH
The domed shrine in Lower Manhattan, where workers are busy installing translucent Greek marble in time for ceremonial lighting on September 10, bears little resemblance to the modest parish church John Katsimatides discovered there has years.
He often visited the ancient Greek Orthodox Church of St. Nicholas to say a prayer and light a candle as he traveled to or returned from work nearby on the 104th floor of the North Tower of the World Trade Center. The church stood like an oasis of calm in the midst of the booming financial district.
John Katsimatides “was delighted that there was a Greek church right across from where he worked,” recalls his sister, Anthoula Katsimatides. “St. Nicholas was very special to him.
Immediately after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, John’s relatives remained hopeful that he might have survived. They put up missing person posters in Lower Manhattan and searched the streets and hospitals for him. But as the days stretched into weeks, “our priest insisted that we read, for the sake of his soul, the prayer rites” marking his death, Anthoula said. John, 31, a corporate bond broker at Cantor Fitzgerald, was among nearly 3,000 people killed on September 11.
The old St. Nicholas Church was also destroyed that day. Although no one was killed in the building, it was crushed under the collapsing south tower, the only place of worship destroyed in the attacks.
“When we found out (…) that Saint Nicholas was also lost, we thought there was some kind of message there, that the victims did not die alone,” said Anthoula Katsimatides. “I remember my mother saying that… John and the other victims were rocked by Saint Nicholas.”
This September 10, the eve of the 20 years after the deadliest terrorist attack in the country, she will attend the lighting ceremony of the Greek Orthodox Church of St. Nicholas and the National Shrine, being built for replace the parish church and honor those who have been lost.
The ceremony will be a milestone in a project long plagued by bureaucratic tangles and financial woes, but now nearing completion next year.
“St. Nicholas brings me closer to my brother,” said Anthoula Katsimatides. “Being able to come and worship at the site of my brother’s death, in a beautiful chapel that not only honors John but all the victims who died that day and is a symbol of this rebirth, is incredibly important to me now.”
The lighting of the church will come from inside. Through an innovative process, the interior lights are designed to illuminate thin panels of marble, extracted from the same Pentelic vein in Greece that gave birth to the Parthenon, the ancient temple of Athens.
The church is built in a small elevated park overlooking the World Trade Center Memorial Square, near the reflecting pools that mark the location of the Twin Towers. A huge bronze sphere that once stood between the towers now stands, dented and damaged, in the grounds just beyond the chapel gates. Groups of tourists and schools often gather on a staircase leading to the shrine.
One of the most visible signs of the unfinished work of the Ground Zero rebuilding effort has been the shrine’s concrete shell, traversed daily by floods of tourists. Work on installing its marble cladding has proceeded at a rapid pace in recent weeks, in time for the lighting of the ceremony, although the church is not expected to be completed until next year.
The church is designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, with its dome, windows and iconography inspired by ancient historic Byzantine churches, including the famous Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. A Greek iconographer incorporates traditional motifs with images of 9/11, including tributes to the rescuers killed.
“The translucent areas of the facade are meant to give the church a dim light, like a beacon of hope, at night,” Calatrava said. “Building the church with Pentelic stone adds another level of symbolism, because… I consider Hagia Sophia to be the Parthenon of Orthodoxy. “
Given its prime location near the 9/11 Memorial and Museum, the shrine is destined to become an iconic American expression of Eastern Orthodoxy, an ancient Christian fellowship that still predominates in Greece and much of Europe. from the East, but which has a small part of the American Christian. population.
In addition to its shrine, the shrine will have a separate space for meditation and reflection for people of all faiths.
“It’s going to have a rich liturgical life” as a church, said Michael Psaros, vice president of Friends of St. Nicholas, the private entity overseeing the project in cooperation with the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. “But this beautiful shrine that we are building belongs to New York, it belongs to the United States, and it belongs to the world.”
This inclusion “perpetuates what Saint Nicholas was in the past,” said Olga Pavlakos, vice-president of the parish. She was baptized in the old church, where her parents married and her grandparents worshiped.
“Anyone who entered St. Nicholas, whether Greek, non-Greek, of any race, religion, we have accepted everyone,” she said. If “they were poor, they needed something to eat, they wanted soup, everyone was accepted.”
Greek immigrants founded St. Nicholas on Cedar Street in Lower Manhattan in 1916, turning a former tavern into a church and topping it with a small belfry and a cross. According to parish tradition, newly arrived Greek immigrants came there to thank Saint Nicholas, patron saint of sailors.
“Everything we did in Saint Nicholas was completely voluntary,” Pavlakos said. “It was a poor parish.
Over the decades, even as the church was islanded by a parking lot and overshadowed by the World Trade Center, parish leaders refused to sell to greedy land developers. At the turn of the century, its small core of members still came from the boroughs and surrounding communities to worship.
Since September 11, parishioners have worshiped in various parishes in the region. “We kept waiting” to come back, Pavlakos said. “We never thought it would take 20 years.”
The Archdiocese has always intended to rebuild, but the question was where, given all of the components involved in the rebuilding at Ground Zero. The archdiocese and the New York and New Jersey Port Authority, which owns the mall, ended up in litigation in 2011 before moving to a site on Liberty Street near the old church. Officials solemnly inaugurated the event in 2014.
But a new crisis broke out.
Costs soared beyond forecast and construction came to a halt in late 2017 after the Archdiocese fell behind in payments. The archdiocese, which had its own financial difficulties, used $ 3.5 million of dedicated shrine funds for its own operating deficit and had to pay it back.
The archdiocese appointed a committee of inquiry that attributed the St. Nicholas cost overruns to costly change orders. These architectural improvements “may have been made with the best of intentions” for a shrine of such importance, but they pushed the cost well above the archdiocese’s public disclosures, the committee said in 2018.
The Archdiocese has also implemented the committee’s recommendation to entrust the management of the project to a separate entity. This entity, the Friends of St. Nicholas, run by a core of wealthy Greek-Americans, has completed fundraising for the church, with estimated costs of nearly $ 85 million, and is now raising an endowment for the maintenance and security.
“The Archdiocese is good at a lot of things, but building a national shrine in the most expensive place in the history of Western civilization was not exactly its forte,” Psaros said.
Archbishop Elpidophoros, who took over the leadership of the National Archdiocese in 2019, said the symbolism of the shrine is important.
“Ground Zero is known worldwide as a place of religious hatred and violence, and the results of that religious hatred and violence,” he said. “Part of our responsibility was to restore the reputation of religion (…) as a factor in uniting peoples.
The project is one of the last parts of the reconstruction in the district of Lower Manhattan devastated on September 11. A performing arts center is under construction and is expected to open in 2023, and an additional office building and apartment complex are planned.
“One of the main priorities has been to bring the World Trade Center campus to completion, and one of the most important aspects of this is the national sanctuary,” said the executive director of the Port Authority. , Rick Cotton. The church project completes “those aspects of the site which are truly dedicated to the spiritual memory of those who were killed in the attack.”
The project has personal significance for Rev. Alex Karloutsos, longtime Vicar General of the Archdiocese. In the hours and days following the 9/11 attacks, he was part of the clergy providing spiritual support to recovery workers.
“People at that time were looking for something sacred, because they had just experienced what was wrong,” he said.
Among the surviving artifacts of St. Nicholas was a paper icon of St. Dionysius of Zakynthos – the patron of forgiveness for forgiving his brother’s murderer.
“This icon was very poignant, because at the end of the day, in order for us to come out of our hatred, we even had to forgive those who destroyed our siblings,” Karloutsos said.
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