St. Nicholas Community Comes Together

NEW YORK – The General Assembly meeting of the parish of St. Nicholas that was held in the ballroom of the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity in Manhattan on November 10 was notable for being both a businesslike and emotional affair.

Members and friends of the beloved church at Ground Zero that was destroyed on 9/11 could hardly believe that construction will soon commence – in the first quarter of 2014 – and that they will be in their new home as early as the end of 2015.

The guests were impressed by images of the design of renowned architect Santiago Calatrava. His $2 million fee is an important part of the total cost – which is expected to range between $24 and $28 million – of the building that will become an instant New York, if not global, landmark.

The two-hour meeting opened with a welcome from Bishop Andonios of Phasiane, the Chancellor of the Archdiocese of America who also serves as the coordinator of the reconstruction committee and the Archdiocese’s liaison with the Parish Council.

Archbishop Demetrios appointed him Chairman of the meeting and PC Member Elizabeth Brodie was named the recording secretary.

Demetrios offered opening prayers and led those gathered in chanting the apolytikion – hymn – of St. Nicholas and welcomed them to what he called “a historic moment for an historic community and of our archdiocese.”

The agenda included the adoption of new bylaws, a “Motion regarding the exchange of the Property with Port Authority, ie. 155 Cedar Street for site at 130 Liberty Street,” Old Business, which included concerns of certain parishioners that Bishop Andonios said would be looked into, and New Business, which Emanuel G. Demos, General Counsel of the Archdiocese, addressed with the cry “let’s build a church.”

Before the presentations, Andonios asked the parish council members to stand and be acknowledged, calling them “A group of individuals [who constitute] the steadfast leadership of this community.” Demetrios also thanked the pastor Fr. John Romas.

John Kouloucoundis resigned as president. Pending the reconstitution of the board under the new bylaws, Pavlakos has represented St. Nicholas. Her signature appears on the PDADC (Project Development Agreement for Design and Construction) agreement.

He said it was a joy to work with them as Chancellor, especially over the past year when there were leadership changes and during which they had “candid and open dialogue.” He said “that is what will happen today. We function with transparency. For anyone who has questions, this is the opportunity to have them answered so we can move forward with one voice regarding decisions that have to be made today.” He added later that transparency would prevail as the project moved forward and that updates would be issued.

Olga Pavlakos, the Council’s treasurer, greeted all the guests and checked in the members in good standing. Whereas only the latter could speak and vote, His Grace agreed to a motion to permit all those present to speak and express their views on motions and other matters.

The “Motion regarding the exchange of the Property with Port Authority,” entailed exchanging title for the church’s original 1,200 square foot lot, for a “ground leasehold interest in approximately 5,264 square feet of real property,” according to the PDADC that was obtained by TNH from the Port Authority (PA).

Andonios said the Church’s decision to enter into a dollar per year 99-year lease agreement with the PA revolved around a technical matter. By doing so, the design and construction would be subject only to the PA’s code as opposed to the PA’s, plus the City’s, plus those of other entities. Nevertheless, as soon as the building is completed he said the Church would exercise its right, expressly stated in the agreement, to buy back the property for $1.

Demos said the lease agreement stipulates that twice a year the parish can hold outdoor services in the park, presumably Easter and the Feast day of St. Nicholas.

Architect Nicholas Koutsomitis, who is overseeing the project, told TNH that a bereavement center for visitors to the 9/11 memorial would be on the second floor of the west end of the church, above the narthex, and would accommodate 70 people. The community center on the third level will hold up to 125 people.

The dramatic and evocative design – Calatrava drew on the Aghia Sophia and Church of the Chora in Constantinople – will be enhanced by a revolutionary treatment of its external walls, which will consist of a translucent mixture of marble and glass. He was apparently inspired by the description of Justinian’s historian, Procopius of Caesarea, who wrote “the place is not lighted by the sun from without, but that the rays are produced within itself.”

The glorious dome will be pierced by 40 windows, like Justinian’s Aghia Sophia, and Calatrava’s design evokes its sublime but complex interior through the ingenious modifications of elements such as the great exedrae and the pendentives, the spherical triangles that support the dome. By reducing their scale and extent, they hint at the whole.

Most importantly, the Church will stand in what Demetrios called “A privileged place,” near the corner of Liberty and Greenwich Streets overlooking the 9/11 memorial. When the new World Trade Center is completed, the Church will be seen by 200,000 tourists and locals each day. “No other Church in the world has that kind of visibility,” he said.

He described the design architect’s selection process, which he called “objective and transparent,” and included a committee composed of two Parish Councilors, two Synod members, two Archdiocesan Councilors and two architectural experts.

Thirteen world-class architects were invited to submit designs, one of whom gladly paid the $300,000 cost of the model and tearfully said “it would be the job of a lifetime.”

It was noted that the building “would be a continuation of Orthodox tradition but in a modern style,” both criteria called for in the PA agreement, and not a mere copy of previous Byzantine Churches.

He said Calatrava had visited churches in Greece and Mount Athos. One guest suggested he had been to Jerusalem because the interior of the dome resembles the recently redone ceiling of the church of the Holy Sepulcher, and another noted resemblances to the Pantheon in Rome, which, like the Parthenon, had been a Church dedicated to the Theotokos for 1000 years. Archbishop explicitly stated that Calatrava was also inspired by icons of the Theotokos.

The relationship with the renowned architect is off to a good start. Archbishop Demetrios said Calatrava graciously accepted design suggestions from them – a rare gesture among great architects – and noted that the project will also benefit from the fact that he already has a major project at Ground Zero. With his intimate knowledge of the physical and political lie of the land, Calatrava has already been able to persuade the PA on changes desired by the community.

Jerry Dimitriou, Executive Director of Administration of the Archdiocese, made a powerpoint presentation on the finances of the project. He also told TNH that to date the money has been held in the form of cash and short term notes to maximize the liquidity the project required so far, but as the fundraising campaign ramps up, additional instruments will be sought by the investment firm the Archdiocese uses to manage its accounts.

The Greek government had donated $300,000 and the City of Bari, Italy, whose cathedral houses the remains of St. Nicholas, gave about $370,000.

Funds collected:

$2,666,191 – monies received by Archdiocese

$2,001,000 – monies received by the Parish

$1,194,130 – parish insurance

$579,795 – Interest and dividend income

Expenses:

$911,863 – Legal fees:

$3,812,639 – Architectural and Engineering consultants (which includes $1.2 million towards Calatrava’s fee, and work required for the lawsuit against the PA)

$13,306 – Public Relations

$52,802 – auditing and accounting costs

$90,271 – fundraising expenses

$630 – Misc. expenses and bank fees.

$4,881,511 – Total

Currently on deposit: $1,559,605.

Dimitriou promised that auditors will provide a more detailed breakdown and emphasized, however, that “many millions have been pledged to the Archbishop and the committee,” and that an aggressive fundraising campaign is under preparation.

Turner Construction has been engaged to build the sanctuary, with whom the Archdiocese is currently engaged in budget reconciliation. The Archdiocese initially budgeted $20 million, and the range is now $24-28 million. The gap is partly due to the difficulty of estimating the cost of the creating the translucent exterior, which has never been done with the proposed material on so large a scale.

Archbishop Demetrios lauded Bishop Andonios handling of the budget, which has brought down the price from as high as $50 million.

NEW GOVERNANCE

The new bylaws call for a unique governing body for a unique institution. The board of Trustees will contain a maximum of 22 members divided into four classes. Class A includes the archbishop, who will serve as the Chairman of the Board, and the St. Nicholas pastor, for as long as they hold those offices.

Class B “comprises of up to seven member appointed by the chairman.”

The parish’s members will elect up to seven of its members to serve on the Board. The draft bylaws called for the first round to be appointed by the chairman, but Bishop Andonios welcomed a motion, which then passed, for the parish to elect them from the start.

The final class gives representation to some of the community’s major organization since St. Nicholas will now become a national shrine. The presidents of AHEPA, the national Philoptochos, the Archdiocesan Presbyters Council, Leadership 100, and the Faith endowment will be joined by the National Commander of the Archons as ex officio members.

Regina Katapodis, whose family have been St. Nicholas stalwarts for decades, said she felt compelled to speak for longstanding member of the parish who were not made aware of the requirement that participants be up to date on their dues. The chair also welcomed the motion by Demos that was passed enabling them to speak.

The new bylaws were passed overwhelmingly, with none opposed and only three abstentions, but a later motion was passed unanimously, allowing for their passage by unanimous acclamation, which the Archbishop hailed as a symbol of unity.

A NOBLE HISTORY

At the beginning of the meeting, Demetrios reviewed the history of the parish, which was born at 155 Cedar Street in what is believed to have been a tavern. By 1916, the building was modified to create a more appropriate religious space and provided facilities for the community.

He also gave a poignant description of 9/11 and its aftermath, including the relief he felt when he learned the site cleanup was being overseen “by one of our own,” structural engineer Emanuel Velivasakis of the international firm of Thorton Tomasetti. The latter made sure that remains of the church were being handled with “archaeological care.”

Velivaskais remained engaged with the project and has made critical contributions to tis progress, including successfully countering the PA’s claim a that a church could not be erected on the site.

Archbishop Demetrios recounted the painful times when former PA Executive Director Chris Ward appeared to be doing his best to block the Church. The Church was forced to go to court to defend its rights, despite the early commitments of former Governor Pataki and Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

He again thanked all the community leaders who contributed to the ultimate victory, including Fr. Alexander Karloutsos, Protopresbyter of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, Michael Jaharis, Dennis Mehiel and  Archdiocese Counsel, Emmanuel Demos, who works on a pro bono basis, and architect Nicholas Koutsomitis.

The election of Mario Cuomo as governor of New York in 2009 was critical to success. He pushed the PA to hammer out an agreement with the Church, to “get it done,” and the Archbishop said he was afraid Ward would have a heart attack when the later signed the papers in October 2011.

Calatrava’s design, inside and out, promises a different cardiopulmonary experience – it will take people’s breath away.