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New York Times Features Reopened St. Nicholas Greek Church at WTC

NEW YORK – The New York Times featured the reopened St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church and National Shrine at the World Trade Center in an article on December 24 titled “St. Nicholas (the Church) Has Come to Town.”

The Times noted that it was the only Greek Orthodox house of worship destroyed on September 11 and “after 21 years and $85 million, its glowing new home has opened.”

“Olga Pavlakos grew up going to St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Lower Manhattan,” the Times reported, adding that “she was baptized there. Her parents were married there. She has memories of her father, who worked in restaurants, volunteering there on Sundays, and of celebrating Epiphany every January, when parishioners would walk to the Hudson River, toss a gold cross into the frigid water and watch divers plunge in to retrieve it.”

“St. Nicholas has been part of my family my whole life,” Pavlakos, a lawyer, told the Times.

Like many of the parishioners of the community, “her connection to St. Nicholas can be traced to her grandparents, who left Greece in the early 1900s and settled in Lower Manhattan, then a bustling immigrant community,” the Times reported, noting that “residents there scraped together money and bought a tavern on Cedar Street that they converted to a place of worship, eventually adding a bell at the top.”

“These original parishioners, who had arrived by boat, named their church after the patron saint of seafarers — a saint who fed the hungry and clothed the needy and inspired the character of Santa Claus,” the Times reported, adding that “as the decades passed, and the modest buildings of the immigrant enclave gave way to the World Trade Center and other steel and glass towers of the financial district, many of the parishioners moved to other boroughs and beyond. But St. Nicholas managed to stay put. That is, until Sept. 11. The tiny church was obliterated during the terrorist attacks.”

“Twenty-one long and difficult years later, St. Nicholas has reopened,” the Times reported, “but it is no longer a humble church, exclusively for its parishioners. Its mission is larger, as is its splendor.”

“St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church & National Shrine, as it’s now called, has become a destination for all,” the Times reported, noting that “it offers a bereavement center that will serve as a place for meditation and prayer for people of any faith.”

“The structure itself cost $85 million and features white marble imported from the same quarry that provided stone for the Parthenon,” the Times reported, adding that “its interior is decorated with icons hand-painted by a monk in Greece. The building sits proudly on an elevated plaza called Liberty Park, which overlooks the pools of the 9/11 Memorial. Its translucent dome glows at night.”

“More high-profile than the original saloon with a bell, the new church is a prominent expression of Orthodox Christianity in the city, and it is a source of great pride for the Greek-American community,” the Times reported, adding that “for the few remaining longtime parishioners of St. Nicholas, there is relief that their beloved church has finally reopened, but now, their intimate community hub is a global destination, and some wonder about the future of their once tight-knit parish.”

“St. Nicholas has been recast as a national shrine memorializing the nearly 3,000 people who lost their lives 21 years ago,” the Times reported, noting that “it is expected to attract a steady stream of tourists; an app offering an audio tour narrated by George Stephanopoulos is in the works.”

“In the aftermath of Sept. 11, the 70 or so families who were parishioners of St. Nicholas just wanted to rebuild their church on the same small plot of land they had always owned,” the Times reported, adding that “Regina Katopodis remembers driving her father, the president of the parish council, from their home in Bergen Beach, Brooklyn, to the site, where he would join the parish priest, the Rev. John D. Romas, to sift through the rubble in search of any remnant that might be rescued. (Fortunately, no one was in the building during the attacks.)”

“The parishioners held monthly meetings,” the Times reported, noting that “they organized fund-raisers, including a cruise around Manhattan that passed Ellis Island, where their ancestors had once arrived from Greece.”

“But rebuilding in Lower Manhattan after Sept. 11 was no simple matter, given the jigsaw puzzle of projects that the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which had owned the World Trade Center, sought to piece together there, so the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, which is based in New York, stepped in to take charge,” the Times reported, pointing out that “St. Nicholas had been the only house of worship destroyed in the terrorist attacks, and church officials decided it should be rebuilt as a spiritual refuge for all visitors to the trade center area — perhaps a surprising stance for the Greek Orthodox Church, which represents only about .5 percent of the Christian population in the United States and has a decidedly conservative bent.”

“Some Friends of Saint Nicholas members will become trustees of the church, according to Michael Psaros, the group’s chairman,” the Times reported, adding that “the organization raised more than $5 million above and beyond what was needed to complete the church, and the money will go into an endowment to pay for security and building maintenance.”

“In a speech at the consecration of St. Nicholas in July, Mr. Psaros predicted that it would attract more visitors than any other Greek Orthodox house of worship in the world,” the Times reported, noting that “in a nod to the more intimate days of the church, Mr. Zaharatos, Ms. Katopodis and Ms. Pavlakos all sit on the parish council, along with new members who include businesspeople and leaders of Greek institutions.

“It could not be what it was,” the Rev. Alexander Karloutsos told the Times. “It was transfigured at that moment of death… We have a responsibility to bear witness to the lives lost.”

“Because of the ambitious scope of the project, the future of the church was largely out of parishioners’ hands, said Ms. Katopodis, an owner of Pi Bakerie, which serves up spanakopita and other Greek specialties just a few blocks away from St. Nicholas,” the Times reported. “We had to step aside for a while,” she told the Times.

“Fr. Romas relocated to Saints Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Cathedral, in Downtown Brooklyn, followed by several other congregants, including Ms. Katopodis,” the Times reported, adding that “after years of political wrangling, stop-and-go negotiations and litigation, a land-swap agreement was finalized.”

“The Port Authority would fold the church’s lot into surrounding property it controlled and build a secure facility for vehicles entering the area,” the Times reported, noting that “in exchange, the church would get a spot atop the facility and slightly east of its original location, on the corner of Greenwich and Liberty Streets.”

“The church, it turned out, would not only gain a more prominent address, it would also get an entire new look,” the Times reported, adding that “Santiago Calatrava, the Spanish-born architect who designed the modern, birdlike train station and shopping mall nearby known as the Oculus, sketched out a plan for a 12,000-square-foot domed structure with four corner towers, drawing inspiration from Byzantine art and architecture.”

“When illuminated from inside at night, the dome would shine ‘like a candle,’” Calatrava said, the Times reported, noting that however “as the years went by and office towers went up on the trade center site, the 9/11 Memorial opened and tourists flocked to the area to pay their respects, the church project languished.”

The Times then highlighted the struggles of the project including that the “construction did not begin until 2015, by which time costs, originally estimated to be $20 million, had skyrocketed” and then “in 2019 a group of wealthy Greek Americans got together to restart the project and push it over the finish line.”

“The Friends of Saint Nicholas, as the group is called — including John Catsimatidis, the billionaire owner of the Gristedes supermarkets and one-time Republican candidate for mayor — raised the remainder of the money and kept tabs on construction,” the Times reported.

Sadly, Fr. Romas and many parishioners passed away before St. Nicholas reopened, including the fathers of Ms. Pavlakos and Ms. Katopodis, and Peter Zaharatos’ parents, the Times reported, noting that Zaharatos is “an architectural designer whose father, a furniture maker and contractor, had helped renovate the old church in 1989.”

“Half the parishioners from before 2001 are gone,” Zaharatos, told the Times.

“The Rev. Andreas Vithoulkas, a former chancellor of the archdiocese, has been appointed the new presiding priest,” the Times reported, noting that “he plans ‘to not only minister to the Greek Orthodox faithful,’ he said, but open the institution up to the rest of the world, in an attempt to ‘make this more of an ecumenical parish.’”

As The National Herald reported, the church had its first regular services for the Feast Day of St. Nicholas. “It was packed,” the Times reported, adding that “Pavlakos hung out in one of the candle rooms, tossing the melted-down ones into a cardboard box.”

“My dad, when he was alive, used to do that,” she told the Times. “He was in charge of the candles and the finances.”
Zaharatos “was there, too,” the Times reported, noting that “at one point, he stood near the church entrance, speaking about his family’s ties to St. Nicholas,” and “while the new building was under construction, he had written his father’s name on a concrete pillar, now hidden under marble.”

“I know it’s there. It means a lot to me,” he told the Times, adding that “the church connects me to my parents in a powerful way… It doesn’t look anything like it was, but I feel them here with

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