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A Tale of Three Churches: Part 1

On September 11, 2001, in an act of terror and hatred, our Nation was attacked and three thousand of our fellow human beings were mercilessly murdered. The horrific deaths of the innocent victims of that tragic day were brought about by a hatred fueled by perverse and perverted religious views. In the face of the horror of that day, we all witnessed the heroic love of the responders who gave their last measure to save others. This altruistic love is at the heart of the rebuilding of the Saint Nicholas Church at Ground Zero, a National Shrine of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.

Saint Nicholas is being rebuilt as an act of inclusive love – not merely as the parish destroyed that fateful day, but as a sign of love and hope for every person who will pass by and see its glimmering dome. Indeed, Saint Nicholas is being rebuilt for the sake of the souls of those who perished that day, and for the sake of the soul of our Nation and that of the world.

As is well known but seldom mentioned, there are over 1,100 persons who died that day whose earthly remains were never recovered. Their families go on without the closure of burial of any kind. And in the Museum that is across from the site of Saint Nicholas, the unidentified remains (over 9,000 fragments) of those lost on 9/11 will be interred. As Anemona Hartocollis wrote in the New York Times in April of 2011:

"In one of the haunting legacies of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, the remains of 1,123 of the victims, 41 percent of the total, have not been identified, leaving many of their relatives yearning for closure. At the same time, nearly 10 years later, 9,041 pieces of human remains — mainly bone fragments but also tissue that has been dehydrated for preservation — are still being sorted through by the city's medical examiner for DNA, though the last time a connection was made was in 2009. … The plan at the World Trade Center is for the remains to be invisible and inaccessible to the public, museum officials said; an adjoining room will be available to victims' families for contemplation and grieving. Although people would have to enter the museum to get to the remains, the remains will technically be in the custody of the medical examiner, so that they may be removed for future testing."

This decision has a great impact on the significance of Saint Nicholas at Ground Zero.

The most famous cenotaph in the world is the Anastasis in Jerusalem, more widely known as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Within this site, most sacred to Christians around the world, are both the hill of Golgotha where our Lord Jesus Christ was crucified, and the All-Holy and Life-giving Tomb, where He was buried. But as the Angel cried to the Myrrh-bearing Women two thousand years ago: "He is risen! He is not here!" (Mark 16:6). Thus the Tomb of the Lord is an empty tomb, a cenotaph, the most famous cenotaph in the world.

It is this message of the Resurrection, the hope of eternal life in Christ, which Saint Nicholas Church at Ground Zero will bring to life by its presence and witness. The Church may be small but it is very impressive in its stone-clad exterior, as opposed to the glass and steel that surround it. In fact, Saint Nicholas will be the only religious commemoration within the rebuilt 16-acre World Trade Center site. Therefore, the whole Church structure will serve as a cenotaph for the memory of those who, by an act of hatred and violence, were denied not only their lives but even the dignity of burial. Our Church will stand at Ground Zero as an affirmation that religious faith – understood in its truest meaning – is creative and loving, not destructive and hateful.

Therefore, the rebuilding of Saint Nicholas Church at Ground Zero is a remarkable opportunity for the entire Archdiocese to bear witness to our strong faith, our future hope and our deepest love. It is also an awesome responsibility that we can all share as the building progresses over the next two years. Because Saint Nicholas Church was part of the destruction of that day, it is also part of the restoration. With a quiet dignity and abiding presence, Saint Nicholas Church at Ground Zero will preach the most fundamental truth of our precious Orthodox Christian Faith – the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ and therefore our resurrection as well, night and day without pause. The Church will stand in the light of the Resurrection for all to see and behold the goodness of God.

As beautiful and moving as the National September 11 Memorial and Museum are beautiful and moving are, they are by definition and purpose secular. Together they comprise nearly half of the World Trade Center site; the other half is filled with commercial space, skyscrapers and the transportation hub. The Memorial itself – directly across from the site of Saint Nicholas – contains two large waterfalls and reflecting pools, each about an acre in size, set within the footprints of the Twin Towers. On bronze parapets that surround the pools the names of the nearly 3,000 people killed in the terrorist attacks of 9/11 are inscribed, as well as those killed in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Even the memorial inscription that will be inscribed on the wall in the Museum in front of the victims' remains is secular. It is from the "Aeneid" of the Roman poet Virgil (died 19 BC). It reads: "No day shall erase you from the memory of time" ("Nulla dies umquam memori vos eximet aevo" Book 9, line 447).

So as eloquent as these sentiments are, and as moving as the Museum and the Memorial are, it will be up to Saint Nicholas Church to provide the space for spiritual, worshipful and liturgical acts of faith, private and public. As a Greek Orthodox Parish, the full cycle of services will be held. But as a welcoming haven of spiritual wealth and health, the Church building – the nave, narthex, meditation/bereavement space, even the social hall, will be a vital and indeed necessary component of the new World Trade Center. The wounds of 9/11 are not so old that the encounter with the harsh memory of that tragic day will not propel visitors of all faiths and cultures to seek solace and comfort within Saint Nicholas. It is our privilege to be present at Ground Zero. We were there long before the tragedy and before even the thought of the Twin Towers. And we will be there long into the future, a cenotaph honoring and remembering those who died that day. And bearing witness to the Resurrection of the dead, and the life of the age to come.


Additional Stories

Memories of St. Nicholas: A Refuge
Series titled "Memories of St. Nicholas" We headed to social media to ask people to share their memories of St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church before it was destroyed on September 11, 2001. This story is about a worker at City Hall who frequented St. Nicholas.
Memories of St. Nicholas: A Treasured Place
Series titled: Memories of St. Nicholas. The story from an individual who frequented St. Nicholas during their lunch hour, celebrated joys, and commemorated their grandmother's one year memorial at St. Nicholas.
St. Nicholas Ground Zero: Out of the Ashes, A New Symbol of Faith
The Church of St. Nicholas that will be built at the heart of Ground Zero replacing the one destroyed on 9/11 will make the most stirring statement that any house of worship has made in the United States in a long time. It will tell America in brilliant visual images what we are, where we come from, and where we are going. A fusion of the past and the future is what characterizes the new St. Nicholas Church. Calatrava has taken his inspiration from some of the great churches in Constantinople in creating his design.
A National Shrine for Everyone
The new Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church at Ground Zero will be much more than a rebuilt parish. It will be a National Shrine of our Holy Archdiocese and a place of pilgrimage for our Nation and the whole world. This recognition, this raising of the consciousness of every member of our Greek Orthodox Archdiocese to the value and significance of the Saint Nicholas National Shrine at Ground Zero is just the beginning. Saint Nicholas will be the only House of Worship in the entire sixteen-acre rebuilt World Trade Center site.
Our American Parthenon
In her remarkable new book, “The Parthenon Enigma,” classical archaeologist Joan Breton Connelly fortuitously highlights the similarity between the rebuilding of the World Trade Center in the wake of 9/11, and the construction of that most famous of human monuments, the Parthenon. In the Persian sack of Athens in 480 B.C., the Older Parthenon, roughly in the same spot and yet unfinished, was destroyed in the fires that swept over the Acropolis. She writes of the motivations of Periklean Athens, a generation later, to rebuild the Parthenon:
A Tale of Three Churches: Part 2
Nearly eighteen hundred years ago, a famous man sardonically asked: “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” As Orthodox Christians, we know that there is an answer and that answer is “Very much!” In the same way, we have seen that New York City has much to do with Jerusalem – as the world’s two most famous cenotaphs are located in each. But we began last issue with three Churches in our tale, and it is time now to include that third House of the Lord, and to behold how all three are intertwined in the work of salvation and history.
A Tale of Three Churches: Part 1
On September 11, 2001, in an act of terror and hatred, our Nation was attacked and three thousand of our fellow human beings were mercilessly murdered. The horrific deaths of the innocent victims of that tragic day were brought about by a hatred fueled by perverse and perverted religious views. In the face of the horror of that day, we all witnessed the heroic love of the responders who gave their last measure to save others. This altruistic love is at the heart of the rebuilding of the Saint Nicholas Church at Ground Zero, a National Shrine of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.
The City Set On A Hill Cannot Be Hidden
It should not difficult for anyone to see that Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church at the World Trade Center, a National Shrine of our Archdiocese, will truly be, as the Lord preached in the Sermon on the Mount, “the city set on a hill that cannot be hidden” (Matthew 5:14).
Rebuilding St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church
The original St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church cast a reverent and faithful shadow on the World Trade Center. Greeks purchased the row house in 1892 as a community home, and it became the Saint Nicholas Church in 1916. For many Greeks immigrants, it would have been their first stop after seeing the Statue of Liberty and disembarking from Ellis Island. The little church was a spiritual jewel, open to all. Generations of New Yorkers stopped in to light a candle, say a prayer, or just sit quietly.
St. Nicholas: On this rock I will rebuild my Church
On September 11, 2001 the barbaric attack not only destroyed the majestic Twin Towers but also the tiny yet historic St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, located south of the second tower of the World Trade Center. In the aftermath of its destruction, very little survived: two icons, one of St. Dionysios of Zakynthos and the other of the Zoodochos Pege, along with a few liturgical items, a book, and some candles.