NEW YORK — Ten years after 9/11, plans have been settled to rebuild the only church that was destroyed during the attacks on the World Trade Center.
The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America has spent the last decade in a tug-of-war with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which owns the land under the World Trade Center, over the future of St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church. The small church sat in the shadows of the Twin Towers but was crushed when they collapsed on Sept. 11, 2001.
On Oct. 14, both parties announced that they had finally reached an agreement.
According to Father Mark Arey, director of the Office of Inter-Orthodox, Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations, St. Nicholas was founded in 1916 at a time when Lower Manhattan was still an immigrant neighborhood made up of mostly Greeks and Syrians. New York was an active port city at the time, and St. Nicholas is the patron saint of those who travel, particularly sailors. Local families pooled their resources and purchased an old tavern at the location of 155 Cedar St.
After its destruction on 9/11, the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America and the 70-family congregation of St. Nicholas immediately pledged to rebuild.
While the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese understood that because of reconstruction efforts at Ground Zero it would not be possible to rebuild at the original site, much of the controversy in recent years has been over negotiating a land swap for the church to still be able to rebuild at Ground Zero. In 2008, a tentative agreement was made for a nearby location, 130 Liberty St. The Port Authority then claimed that the proposal to relocate the site would cost “tens and millions of public dollars,” and the deal was called off, prompting the archdiocese to file suit against the Port Authority on Feb. 14.
Recently, however, Greek Orthodox Archbishop Demetrios had dinner with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who agreed to mediate the negotiations between the archdiocese and the Port Authority. The final agreement will allow for St. Nicholas to be rebuilt on the proposed 2008 site on Liberty Street, with the Port Authority paying for the site work on the below-ground infrastructure and the archdiocese paying for the construction of the church. The site will also include an interfaith prayer center for visitors of any religion, with a slated completion in 2014.
In a statement from Cuomo’s office, he noted that “Rebuilding St. Nicholas Church, with a nondenominational bereavement center, is not just good news for the Greek Orthodox community, but for all New Yorkers. With this agreement, we are continuing New York’s collective healing, restoration and resurgence.”
A few short blocks away from St. Nicholas Church stands St. Peter’s, the oldest Catholic parish in New York City. It was a temporary morgue for victims on 9/11 and was the place where firemen carried the body of Franciscan Father Mychal Judge, the first recorded death during the attacks.
When asked to comment about the rebuilding of St. Nicholas, the pastor of St. Peter’s, Father Kevin Madigan, remarked, “It will be a wonderful thing for them to have a church presence. They have a loyal constituency. Many people don’t realize this, but the parishes of St. Nicholas and St. Peter’s have a shared history.”
He explained that St. Joseph’s Chapel, a mission of St. Peter’s, was St. Joseph’s Church until the early 1980s. “St. Joseph and St. Nicholas used to actually share the same wall,” he said. “During the construction of the World Trade Center, the original plan was to destroy both and build another tower. St. Nicholas remained, but St. Joseph’s Church was demolished.”
Religion at Ground Zero
Ground Zero has been a politically sensitive area and already the site of several clashes between political and religious leaders. On Sept. 22, part of Park 51, an Islamic cultural center formerly known as Cordoba House, opened two blocks away from the former World Trade Center site. The center was the topic of heated debate, as many of the 9/11 victim families believed its presence to be insensitive to the memory of their loved ones. The attacks on 9/11 were carried out by fundamentalist Muslims.
Also, during the memorial service to mark the 10th anniversary of the attacks this year, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg did not invite any clergy to attend the occasion. While the Bloomberg administration claimed that this was simply due to space constraints, many religious leaders viewed this as an effort to exclude religious practice from the memorial events.
For Father Arey, the agreement to rebuild St. Nicholas is a victory for religious liberty and a special privilege for the Orthodox community to live out their faith. “St Nicholas will be the only church on Ground Zero, because it was the only church to begin with. … We are going to be a witness at Ground Zero. It’s a very special opportunity for Orthodoxy in America, where we are a very small minority of Americans.”
Register correspondent Christopher White writes from New York.