NEW YORK – A blessing and ceremony marked the resumption of work at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church and National Shrine at the World Trade Center on August 3. His Eminence Archbishop Elpidophoros of America presided over the blessing. Among those attending the ceremony were New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, Greek Orthodox Archdiocese Vicar General Fr. Alex Karloutsos, Port Authority of New York and New Jersey Executive Director Rick Cotton, Archdiocesan Council Vice President John Catsimatidis, and Friends of St. Nicholas Chairman Dennis Mehiel and Vice President Michael Psaros.
It is a major and symbolic event that is the result of a critical meeting held earlier this year at Archdiocesan headquarters which was focused on the need to complete the building that will replace the Church of St. Nicholas, the only house of worship destroyed on September 11, 2001.
Addressing all those present, Archbishop Elpidophoros noted the importance and symbolism of the project and thanked all those involved with the project who helped him achieve this first goal since assuming his duties in the Archdiocese of America.
"Today is a very important day. We are reversing the negative climate that existed for our church concerning St. Nicholas at the World Trade Center and we return it to the world, the Greek community, Orthodoxy, and Hellenism as a source of purification, as a glory of Orthodoxy, Hellenism, and the American spirit that is not a spirit of hatred, but is a spirit of peaceful coexistence, mutual respect, democracy, religious freedom, and human rights,” said Archbishop Elpidophoros.
“We have heard the voice of the Lord and we are rebuilding this church,” he said.
“Nearly twenty years ago, our St. Nicholas fell with thousands of our fellow human beings, lost in the ashes of 9/11 and numberless more wounded in body, heart and soul, by a savage act of hatred and terror. We cannot, we must not, and we shall not let this stand. We are going to open St. Nicholas Church and National Shrine to open as a sign of love, not hate. A sign of reconciliation, not prejudice; and a sign of the ideals that exist in this great American nation, where the right of religious liberty and freedom of conscience never excludes, but only embraces,” Archbishop Elpidophoros said.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who was very cooperative with the Archdiocese of America for the implementation and then rescue of the project, expressed the belief that it has an impact not only on the Greek Orthodox and New Yorkers, but for all Americans.
“In the face of the tragedy and destruction of 9/11, the community of St. Nicholas literally held their ground in the face of an unthinkable hatred-inspired tragedy, relying instead on power and love, to restore what was lost, but also to create a symbol of faith and tolerance,” said Gov. Cuomo, who then adapted his message to the people of New York.
Gov. Cuomo said the continuing reconstruction is more proof of New Yorkers' persistence to rise from the ashes of the terror attacks.
“This St. Nicholas is going to be more splendid and more inviting than the St. Nicholas that was here before,” he said.
"In New York, we know from experience that rebuilding after a crisis means much more than replacing bricks and mortar or revitalizing our economy. It also requires that we heal the afflicted spirit. This church is helping us achieve this healing, it will be a national shrine, emerging in a sacred place from the tragedy that took place here and will send a strong message to the world that New York is a state that becomes stronger with tolerance and respect for each other,” said Gov. Cuomo.
Port Authority Executive Director Rick Cotton praised the efforts of Archbishop Elpidophoros and the Friends of St. Nicholas, noting this important project for Manhattan.
“The new St. Nicholas Church and National Shrine will be a source of inspiration and peace, while helping to spread the historic contribution of the Greek Orthodox community to all who visit and pray,” said Cotton.
Port Authority President Kevin J. O'Toole noted the symbolic value of the reconstruction of St. Nicholas.
“The church is a symbol of continued resilience, which contributed to the rebirth of the World Trade Center. Today is the day to recognize these achievements, which were achieved after a hard fight,” said O'Toole.
During the ceremony, the first window in the dome of St. Nicholas was set in place with a crane, which Gov. Cuomo guided from inside the church.
Now, work at St. Nicholas is in progress and the opening date is set for September 11, 2021. As it was pointed out, the coronavirus pandemic and the temporary suspension of construction activity did affect the completion schedule, but St. Nicholas will be almost completely ready in September of next year.
Michael Psaros: “Our Aghia Sophia”
Friends of St. Nicholas Vice President Michael Psaros spoke with The National Herald and expressed his satisfaction and emotion as work resumed on St. Nicholas.
“Today is a historic day. It is the last step in the resurrection of Ground Zero and New York because we are starting to complete the construction work at St. Nicholas at Ground Zero. St. Nicholas will be the most visited church in New York and possibly in all of the United States. For the Greeks and the Orthodox, this is our Aghia Sophia. This is our Parthenon in America,” Psaros told TNH.
Then, Psaros took a brief look back at the events that led to the shutdown of the project, but also the coordinated effort that eventually led to its re-start.
“Two and a half years ago, this project was dead. We would have lost the church, the national shrine, and this space,” Psaros said, adding that the first reaction was the establishment of the organization Friends of St. Nicholas, a few months later, in order to start the work again.
“There are three reasons why this church is being built: First and foremost, the enthronement of Mr. Elpidophoros as Archbishop of America. The Archdiocese had to turn the page and have new leadership. It was the credibility of Archbishop Elpidophoros with Governor Cuomo, the Port Authority, and the Greek community. The second reason is to build trust, for the 13 entrepreneurs from all over America, who have taken on this responsibility. In 45 days, beginning on January 2, we raised $45 million. In addition, all the prayers of the faithful around the world played an important role in contributing to our being here today,” Psaros concluded, acknowledging the contribution of Governor Andrew Cuomo.
“Whether you are a Democrat or a Republican. The fact is that if it were not for Andrew Cuomo or Rick Cotton and Steven Plate of the Port Authority, this national shrine would not have been built. The Greek community owes gratitude to Andrew Cuomo. Thank you, Mr. Governor,” Psraos added - in Greek at the end.
Dennis Mehiel: “We traveled a long and difficult road”
Friends of St. Nicholas President Dennis Mehiel said, “Indeed, it is a special day. We have traveled a long and difficult road. We had serious problems in the first attempt to further the construction, but I will say that in the last 6-7 months, everything is going well.”
He went on to point out that both the Governor of New York and the Port Authority supported the project from the beginning, but made it a condition from the outset that the process run smoothly and, most importantly, that funding be secured.
"They wanted to make sure that funding was available, that serious people would lead the construction work and that decisions would not be affected by challenges like the ones we faced earlier,” said Mehiel.
In conclusion, Mehiel said that "today is the rebirth for the National Shrine of St. Nicholas and we are committed so that this building is delivered 20 years after the attack on the Twin Towers.”
Archbishop Elpidophoros: "A source of glory for Orthodoxy"
Archbishop Elpidoforos spoke to TNH about St. Nicholas as a source of purification on the part of Orthodoxy, reversing the negative climate that had been cultivated in the past.
“Today is a very important day. We are reversing the negative climate that existed for our church for St. Nicholas Church at Ground Zero and we return it to the world, to the Greek community, Orthodoxy, and Hellenism as a source of purification, as a glory of Orthodoxy, Hellenism and the American spirit, which is not a spirit of hatred, but a spirit of peaceful coexistence, mutual respect, democracy, religious freedom, and human rights. Here at Ground Zero, where religion has given history the worst examples, with the death of so many people in the name of religion, Hellenism and Orthodoxy teach another lesson, another example, that this place is a place of coexistence and mutual respect of ethnicities and religions. All this, of course, with prayer,” said Archbishop Elpidophoros.