Church rebuild at Ground Zero

The Greek Orthodox church which fell victim to the 9/11 attacks in Manhattan will reopen by 2016

Greek Americans are rejoicing at the announcement of the imminent rebuild of St Nicholas Greek Orthodox church at New York’s Ground Zero, 13 years after its predecessor’s fateful fall on September 11.

The original church was established in an old row house in 1916, and was flattened by falling debris from the collapsing twin towers which stood beside it, after hijackers piloted two planes into the buildings.

Neos Kosmos spoke to Archdiocese spokesperson Fr. Evagoras Constantinides about the church’s rebuild, which after a great deal of hard work and planning on the sensitive site, has an expected completion date of 2016.

“This isn’t a normal building project. This is something that happened on the site of the biggest tragedy that’s ever occurred on American soil, so obviously there are a lot of nuances in the processes, there’s a lot of sentimentality that went into it,” he says.

The rebuild has been welcomed by the Greek American diaspora, with an awe-inspiring wave of support and funding donations throughout the project.

“All of us at the Archdiocese were overwhelmed on October 18 when we were at the site where St Nicholas is going to be built; we were joined by over 3,000 people of the Greek community from up and down the east coast. I think the community in general and the Greek press here in America, the Greek communities and organisations, everyone has responded overwhelmingly that they’re on board and a part of this project.”

The church rebuild will be funded privately, through a “multifaceted fundraising appeal”.

“It’s been humbling to be here and to watch donations come from parishes. There was a parish in New London, Connecticut on 9/11 this year, which hosted a gyro-festival and raised something like US$13,000. They sent all of that money for the rebuild. Parishes are coming up with creative ideas.”

“We are very lucky and blessed in this country to have people in the Greek Orthodox community who have been very blessed in life and they have in turn responded with donations.

“We are finding ourselves in a very good spot where we will be able to fund this project with absolutely no problem.”

The church’s new location, which is roughly a football pitch-and-a-half away from the old site, forms part of the new Liberty Park. The church was moved to accommodate the Vehicle Security Centre for the New York Port Authority, which acquired the site of the old church as part of the screening process for all vehicles entering the new One World Trade Centre.

Its design is modelled off Agia Sophia and the Church of Holy Saviour in Chora, Constantinople, Fr. Constantinides explains.

“Our architect, Mr Santiago Calatrava, is not just an architect, he’s also an artist. He spends his mornings sketching paintings and he looked at icons of the Virgin Mary enthroned in the Agia Sophia, and he looked at iconography and pictures of Chora. There’s no question that this is going to be a true Byzantine church.”

Fr. Constantinides says the completion of the new church will serve as a place to mourn the sacred land and events which characterise the area.

“I don’t know if there ever will be a moment of closure or a symbol of closure for us as Americans. But I do think the church is a sign of resurrection and a sign of hope and peace and reconciliation.

“For us as Orthodox Christians it’s a sign that even through the worst there is resurrection and that’s what we see in St Nicholas.”

And he says it will also serve as an interfaith house of God for people of all faiths.

“The Archbishop likes to talk about the area as like a cemetery, because that day it wasn’t just office buildings and supplies that completely perished, it was human beings and souls that were crushed to pieces and obliterated. We’re very sensitive that pieces of the people and of those buildings still remain in that place. So the fundamental thing to understand is that St Nicholas is a place of worship for Orthodox Christians absolutely without a doubt, but at the same time it has an extended mission. We are called to provide this expanded mission for visitors, for residents of New York, for victims’ families and that will come through on the second-floor bereavement centre – a non-sectarian interfaith section – that will be a place where people can go and sit and have that moment of silence and reflection, thought and understanding.”

Despite the ‘flattening’ of the previous church some of its artefacts were saved. They include two icons – an 18 x 24 inch canvas of the ‘life giving fountain’ and a paper icon of St Dionysius of Zakynthos. Also saved were two bibles, which are still filled with the soot and dirt that blanketed New York on September 11, a mangled candelabra, a flattened bread bowl, twisted candles, an embroidered cloth that was used on the altar table to cover the gospel and a solid brass bell that was bent in half, which are all stored at the Archdiocese.

St Nicholas involvement a ‘very high honour’

Father Evagoras Constantinides is the son and grandson of priests. He says he followed in the “family business”, following “some soul searching”, after graduating from university with a degree in communications.

He followed “in seminary” in Boston and is now involved in a number of projects within the Archdiocese in the United States. His main focus, he says, is a yearly summer camp run in Greece, ‘Ionian Village’ – off the west coast of the Peloponnese. It is a 40-year-old tradition for American teens and young adults to base themselves in (and travel across) Greece, visiting significant historical and cultural sites, paying homage to important ecclesiastical saints and Apostles.

Fr. Constantinides says he was approached to serve as a spokesperson for the St Nicholas rebuild, describing it as a “very very high honour” to be involved in such a momentous development in the Greek American narrative – having spent his whole life in the church through his forefathers, and now as a priest.

“This is history in the making, this is American history in the making, and I think for the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese to be at the epicentre of that is a very, very special moment for me and it’s something that I am humbled and honoured to be a part of.”