The morning of September 11, 2001 embraced humanity in New York City with one of the most glorious blue skies in anyone’s memory – but before long, it seemed like that very sky was shattered forever.
Almost every New Yorker’s story about that day begins the same way: “I was on my way to … work … school … to visit my mom …” For Regina Katopodes, owner of the Pi Bakerie in Manhattan, it goes: “I was on my way to a doctor’s appointment in Staten Island…”
The familiar tragic tune shortly changes for Regina, however, because she was born a Maniatis in Brooklyn, to a family that for eight decades was devoted to the modest little parish of St. Nicholas in Lower Manhattan.
She was actually driving the last car permitted to cross the Verrazano Bridge, and got to the doctor’s in time to see one of the towers collapse on TV.
“We were all worried about Agios Nikolaos, and then we found out…it had perished when that tower fell.”
It was difficult for her to get through to her family by phone, but her koumbara finally connected her with her father, James Maniatis, who was concerned about the church.
The next day she began driving him – he was president of the parish – to the site every day, looking at first for signs of life, then for remnants of the way things were. “My dad and Father John Romas and others would go every day to salvage what they could.”
She will never forget the abandoned cars covered with concrete – “and a terrible, terrible odor for at least a month afterwards. I can’t describe the smell. I’ve never smelled anything like that before – but it felt like death.”
There was not much to salvage. There was a metal box in the office but the extreme heat reduced all the documents to dust. What was ever-present was a sense of destruction. “I remember going there on December 6, St. Nicholas’ feast day, and parts of the structure of the towers were still sticking out of the rubble.”
She saw her cousin, Thomas Richardson, then a fire man, now Chief of Fire Operations for NYC. When she spotted him in the pit amidst the others, tears began to stream down her face.
But life moved on – it always does – and that included discussions at the Archdiocese about rebuilding St. Nicholas.
“It was quite a challenge, but we could see the Archdiocese was doing as much as it could in helping us rebuild. Archbishop Demetrios was very emotional. They were not mere Board meetings… a lot of passion was expressed.”
And that effort and passion led after 20 years to this day, Friday, September 10, when a vespers service will be performed at the St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church and National Shrine – and which Regina will attend, invited by Archbishop Elpidophoros.
It will be a bittersweet moment, however: her father, did not live to see that day. Regina will be thinking of him at 8 PM, when new St. Nicholas will finally begin to glow.
“I will feel very honored to be among the guests, but all my thoughts that evening will be on my father and all the other parishioners who were trying to hold on with their last breath, but they passed on.”
Her family’s roots at St. Nicholas go back to 1920, when her Pappou Theodoros Maniatis arrived and soon owned a fruit stand a nearby ferry pier. “The most remarkable thing is that they lived at 127 Liberty Street, and the address of the new church” – built a bit farther East than the original – “is 130 Liberty Street.”
By the 1950s the parishioners asked Theodore to become Parish President, and when he died in 1968, they elected Regina’s father, who served for decades. “He never missed a single Sunday. He was very dedicated to the parish,” Regina said. The tradition lives on. Her son, Pantelis Katpodis retrieved the cross at the parish’s Epiphany Day service this year.
And echoing the Archdiocese’s affirmation that it was not merely rebuilding a church or just creating a shrine but was re-stablishing a living parish, Regina, a Parish Council member, said, “I really believe that we will see the return of that humbleness St. Nicholas had because it is the parishioners that make a church. They will show that humility and welcoming spirit when people of all denominations come into the church.”