Once firmly established in the United States, the major religious denominations in America took action to proclaim their presence by each building a great house of worship in a major thoroughfare in the country’s most significant urban center – New York City.
The Episcopalians, the American version of the Church of England, made the first imprint with the construction of St. Paul’s Chapel on lower Broadway in 1766 and went on to erect the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, the enormous Romanesque edifice on Morningside Heights, beginning in 1892. Not to be absent from the heart of the city, a decade later they built St. Bartholomew’s Church, a magnificent Byzantine-inspired basilica, on Park Avenue and 52nd St.
The Catholics chose the same general area but on Fifth Avenue between 50th and 51st Street to announce their presence when they began the construction of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, their imposing Gothic temple, in 1910 across from what would later become Rockefeller Center.
The Rockefellers were Baptists and were not about to let their denomination go unrepresented once they made their vast fortune, so in 1926 they financed the construction of the tallest religious structure in America, Riverside Church, on Morningside Heights overlooking the Hudson River.
The Jews made their statement in 1958 with the construction of the Fifth Avenue Synagogue, 12 blocks up from St. Patrick’s.
We Greek Orthodox have taken our time to make our presence felt in the Big Apple, content with our modest Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, some distance from the city’s nerve centers on 74th St., between Second and First Avenues. Over the years, many Greek-American leaders have talked about buying or building a cathedral on Park or Fifth Avenues, now that we have made so much progress in America and achieved the second highest per capita income of any ethnic group. But the talk never went anywhere.
Now, a terrible national tragedy has given us the opportunity to create a great shrine for our faith, and a spiritual memorial to all those who perished on 9/11.
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.
Selecting Santiago Calatrava to design the church was an inspired choice, for he is able to capture in his designs the past and the future in such imaginative ways as to astound both the eye and the mind. There is a small bridge in Athens that he designed over a roadway halfway between the city center and Aghia Paraskevi that at first looks like futuristic spaceship ready to take off from its launching pad but then seems to take the form of an ancient Greek trireme gliding over the Aegean.
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. The shallow dome will have 40 ribs as does the dome of the Hagia Sophia, and alternating bands of stone at the corners will echo the walls of the Church of the Holy Savior in Chora. But the church will also be constructed in such a way as to create an ethereal effect reminiscent of the more mystical scenes of 2001: A Space Odyssey. This will be achieved by fusing the exterior stone cladding with glass that in the evening hours will create a luminous aura and make the whole church appear to glow from within.
Most of all, St. Nicholas Church will have something entirely its own – what Laurence Durrell called “spirit of place.” The original church, a neighborhood parish built in 1916, was completely buried by the collapse of the South Tower of the World Trade Center on 9/11, the only place of worship destroyed in the terrorist attack. The new church will be built on a platform 25 feet above street level at the end of an open space that will include a non-denominational bereavement center for rest and meditation, a shrine that will attract pilgrims of all beliefs from all over America and the world.
The church and the park area it will crown will become a national destination that some 10 million people are expected to visit every year. That will make St. Nicholas Church at Ground Zero one of the most popular sites in New York City, attracting twice as many visitors as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, for example, and many times more than other churches in the area, including the most majestic cathedrals.
A terrible tragedy has brought us the opportunity to leave our mark on our new-found land and to do it in a way that is worthy of our faith, fitting to the memory of all those who perished on 9/11, and mindful of the promise of Jesus when he said, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all people.”
Nicholas Gage is a journalist, film producer, and author of seven books including Eleni and Greek Fire.