St. Nicholas Shrine at the World Trade Center will be a church, a museum, and a place to remember the victims of 9/11. Join us on our VIP tour.
St. Nicholas Shrine: under construction at World Trade Center
While in New York in February, my family and I were treated to a special VIP tour of the St. Nicholas National Shrine at the World Trade Center. This new edifice, modeled after Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, will be spectacular when it’s completed. Come along on our VIP tour.
St. Nicholas Shrine: Rising from the ashes of 9/11
Last fall in Chicago, I’d met Father Alex Karloutsos, Director of Public Affairs for the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. He was kind enough to invite us to tour the St. Nicholas National Shrine whenever we came to town. Fast forward to February, and we visited New York. Father Alex arranged for a VIP tour for us, led by Project Manager Andrew Veniopoulos.
We arrived at the World Trade Center site to find it just as emotionally charged as when we’d visited in 2006. This time, instead of rubble, we found the beautiful memorial pools on the footprints of World Trade Center 1 & 2, both destroyed on 9/11. The moving memorial personified the victims. Not only were their names engraved on the perimeter of the memorial, but they were also engraved in history — and in our hearts. Being there was an opportune time to speak with our children about 9/11.
We know 39 Greek-Americans lost their lives that day. We circled the memorials and sought their names. We offered a prayer for them, as well as the other victims of that horrific day. A museum has been constructed on the site, and new towers are rising. As we passed the museum, we could see St. Nicholas National Shrine. It too, is rising from the ashes of 9/11. With its history and significance, this edifice, could very well become the most important church in America.
We met Andrew on the steps, at Liberty and Greenwich Streets. He led us to the secured construction site. We donned hard hats and safety glasses, and went inside.
History of St. Nicholas Church at World Trade Center
Members of the Greek community purchased a row house in 1892, at the site of today’s World Trade Center. It soon served as a community home. By 1917, it became St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church. Near the harbor where new immigrants arrived from Ellis Island, St. Nicholas was a first stop. The parish welcomed tens of thousands of new Greek immigrants to the U.S.
The quaint parish served as a place where generations of New Yorkers — of all faiths — would visit, to light a candle, say a prayer, or enjoy a respite from the chaos of the city.
On September 11, 2001, terror attacks resulted in the destruction of Towers 1 and 2, and great loss of life. St. Nicholas Church was also a victim of 9/11. The only house of worship at the site was completely destroyed by the collapse of Tower 2. Once the victims were laid to rest, Archbishop Demetrios began a dialog with then-New York Governor George Pataki to rebuild the church. It’s taken several years, and much groundwork, but St. Nicholas’ time has finally come.
Andrew shared a story with us. In anticipation of construction, workers cleared away the rubble of the World Trade Center. About 22 feet underground, workers unearthed the remains of a ship, likely built in the 1700s. St. Nicholas of Myra is the patron saint of sea-farers. Startling coincidence or fate?
There was an attempt to move the new church further down the street and off the WTC site. His Eminence remained steadfast, and advocated for the church to be rebuilt on the site of its original home. St. Nicholas National Shrine sits about 20 yards away from where the church originally stood.
Designing St. Nicholas
From the beginning, Archbishop Demetrios set the tone for the design of the church.
“The design for church must respect the traditions and liturgy of the Greek Orthodox Church, but at the same time must reflect the fact that we are living in the 21st century.”
With this in mind, drawings of many architects were considered. Ultimately, His Eminence selected Santiago Calatrava, a Spanish architect, engineer, sculptor, and painter. Known for designing structures whose sculptural forms often resemble living organisms, among his most famous works are the nearby World Trade Center Transportation Hub, the Olympic Sports Complex in Athens (site of the 2004 games), the Milwaukee Art Museum, the Museum of Tomorrow in Rio de Janeiro, and the Turning Torso tower in Malmö, Sweden.
The architect drew inspiration from many Byzantine structures, including Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, and the church in Chora. Calatrava’s design will make St. Nicholas “a lamp on a lampstand, and a city set on a hill” (cf. Matthew 5:14,15).
Thirteen years after 9/11, the groundbreaking took place on October 18, 2014, with a prayer service, a blessing of the site, and a doxology. Faithful from across the national attend the event. In his remarks, His Eminence spoke about the magnitude of the day.
“Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox National Shrine…will soon rise like a glorious phoenix as a National Shrine and a place of pilgrimage for our Nation. It will be a place of faith, a place of peace and a place of solace and hope.”
The building is literally constructed on top of a fortified city. With lessons learned from not only 9/11, but also the 1992 WTC bombing, sophisticated security network and parking garage are housed underground. Rising from the rubble, and sitting on a hill reminiscent of an acropolis, St. Nicholas will overlook the greater area. Construction is expected to be complete next year.
We stood under what will be a stunning Pantocratora, inspired by the Church of the Savior in Chora, in modern-day Turkey. With no iconography or ornamentation, you still get a sense of the immense presence here; you feel that you’re in a holy place. St. Nicholas is hallowed ground. Just as at the memorial pools outside, you can feel the presence of the victims of 9/11 surround you– not in an ominous way, but in a way that makes you feel protected — and peaceful. Which appropriately describes what this structure represents. What was once Ground Zero, is now a newly envisioned complex with a memorial and museum. But something was missing. Now with St. Nicholas, it is whole. With that, the healing process takes a huge leap forward.
Andrew showed us stunning renderings of the completed structure. He also explained that St. Nicholas will be a beacon of light, in more ways than one.
“The skin of the structure will be translucent, and it will illuminate from the inside. At night, it will shine for all to see. It will draw millions of visitors from all over the globe.”
A church, a museum, a light in the dark
St. Nicholas will be a multi-purpose structure. In addition to its operation as a parish, it will serve as a museum of sorts. For the non-Greeks, an interactive exhibit will document and explain Greek culture and Orthodoxy. The building will also include a Meditation/Bereavement space, in which visitors may learn about 9/11, and also pray, meditate, and grieve. Grief counselors will be available to assist the bereavement process. There will also be a Community Room. These will be housed in the upper levels above the Narthex. All faithful and visitors will be welcomed there.
Andrew then led us to a spot in the stairwell and handed us Sharpies.
“Sign the wall. Be part of our history.”
We joined the likes of Associate Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy. Greek singer Panos Kiamos, and countless others, and signed our names. We’re now officially a part of St. Nicholas — St. Nicholas will forever be a part of us. When it’s complete, St. Nicholas Shrine will be spectacular. We will definitely be back to see it shining like a diamond.
Constructing is a costly endeavor. The Archdiocese has applied all insurance moneys received from the destruction of the original building to the effort. Additionally, about $600,000 in donations has been received from Greece, including from the Greek government. Donations are coming in from all over the world, including the City of Bari, Italy; the Embassy of the State of Qatar; The American Jewish Community; Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Albany; and Roman Catholic Archbishop of Boston. The National Philoptochos, Leadership 100, and AHEPA, as well as parishes and faithful around the country have contributed to the cause. Nearly $45 million has been raised to date, but more is needed, to complete the building, and then maintain it.
You can be part of St. Nicholas Shrine too. Make a tax-deductible donation here.
Be sure to visit the magnificent St. Nicholas Shrine when it’s complete. Watch for information on the Thyranixia (Opening of the Doors) in 2018.
Learn more about St. Nicholas National Shrine, and get updates on the progress: Website