Rebuilding the Only House of Worship Destroyed on 9/11

St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church was the only religious establishment destroyed on 9/11. After years of delays and reports of financial mismanagement, the church finally opened last month.

Human remains of people who jumped from the towers or of the passengers of the hijacked planes were spotted around St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church that sat on the foot of tower two and was destroyed from its collapse. 

Virtually all of the church was crushed including relics, or tiny bone fragments, of St. Nicholas, St. Catherine, and St. Sava which were donated by the last tsar of Russia, Nicholas II. People who lost their loved ones during that tragic event may find some solace in the notion that the relics of saints intermingled in the dust with the attack victims. 

No one was inside the church at the time and a parishioner, Bill Tarazonas, who was there to let an electrician in, had escaped minutes before the collapse on foot after he found body parts in his van. 

The church was the only house of worship destroyed on 9/11 and the only building not part of the original twin towers that completely vanished because of the attacks.  

This Greek tragedy will have a happy ending

The Port Authority of New York & New Jersey rebuilt the new St. Nicholas which was designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, also the architect for the world trade center’s bird-shaped Oculus train hall. 

The new site at 130 Liberty Street is minutes away from the church’s original location at 155 Cedar Street but is at least three times larger. The church sits on top of the parking and loading areas of the new World Trade Center. 

Port Authority reportedly created a bomb-proof platform underneath the church at a cost of $40 million and provided the necessary utility hookups. The church pays for anything built above ground: a budget that quadrupled to $85 million. 

Some of the notable donations came from The Government of Greece which contributed $750,000, the Ecumenical Patriarchate gave $50,000, and the city of Bari in Italy, where the relics of Saint Nicholas were originally bestowed, donated $500,000. 

The church is built of steel and concrete and its vestments will be sheathed in white marble. Its dome - inspired by the world-famous Byzantine Church of the Savior in Edirnekapı, Istanbul - will be lit from the inside at night like a beacon.

“Light, in my eyes, is to architecture what sound is to music,” Calatrava shared

A tavern found religion

Undeterred by its small size and unusual location, all the surrounding buildings had been demolished before the attacks, the church had a dedicated congregation of 70 families under the care of Father John Romas who temporarily moved to Sts. Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Brooklyn.

The original building was a private dwelling constructed in 1832 and was later turned into a tavern. During prohibition, five families raised $25,000 to purchase the tavern and converted it into a church in 1922. 

It was the first stop for many Greek immigrants after disembarking from Ellis Island. 

“There are countless stories of immigrants who upon landing in Manhattan would go to the small Greek Church to light a candle and thank God for their safe passage to the land of freedom and opportunity,” according to a video released by the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese.  

The new church will provide the message of hope all over again but this time it will be not just for Greek Orthodox but for all people. That is why the church is officially designated a national shrine and will contain a meditation and bereavement space and a community room housed in the upper levels above the Narthex. 

Master iconographer Father Lukas - who is based at Mount Athos, an important site for Eastern Orthodox monasticism - created religious paintings for the new St. Nicholas in the traditional craft of egg tempera.

“I personally want this church, through the iconography to open up a new horizon for people, that they come away with hope. If this happens, the icons will have fulfilled their purpose.”

It is the same message of hope that echoes in the voices of many people who are associated with the church in one way or another. 

“This house of worship will serve as a reminder that our collective faith is something we can always count on to move past our painful memories and build a better tomorrow,” Former Gov. Andrew Cuomo said in a statement.

The rebuilding effort, however, did not come without significant problems. 

An internal audit revealed that the archdiocese had used $4.75 million of the church’s money to cover a shortfall in the 2017 general operating budget for the archdiocese. 

“It was a transferring of money from the St. Nicholas to another kind of account. Afterwards we heard about that, I ask, ‘Why you did that?’ I said, ‘You should not have touched the St. Nicholas money at all for no matter what.’ It was a mistake, has been corrected,” said Archbishop Demetrios.

The money was returned. Archbishop Demetrios resigned last year and in an effort to bring greater transparency, a new treasurer and a new chief financial officer were hired. The archdiocese has cut about 25 percent of its staff, and about 25 percent of expenses. 

The new St. Nicholas completed its reincarnation and opened its doors last month on the 20th anniversary of 9/11. City and church officials expect the new St. Nicholas to be the most visited church in the country.