When members of St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church celebrate their patron saint’s feast day on Dec. 6, they may be able to mark the occasion with prayers on newly blessed ground in lower Manhattan.

It depends on work schedules at the construction site for their new sanctuary, which will overlook the National September 11 Memorial. This is a problem Greek Orthodox leaders welcome after a long, complicated legal struggle to rebuild the tiny sanctuary ”“ located 80 yards from the World Trade Center’s South Tower ”“ which was the only church destroyed in the 9/11 maelstrom.

“It’s all of this powerful symbolism, and its link to that September 11 narrative, that lets people grab on to the effort to rebuild this church and see why it matters,” said Steven Christoforou, a youth ministry leader at the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.

Facing the giant holes at Ground Zero, he said, it was natural to see them as tombs, as symbols of never-ending grief. Today, the footprints of the twin towers have become fountains in reverse, with curtains of water pouring into a dark void that disappears underground at the 9/11 memorial and museum.

But sometime in 2016, or early 2017, the new St. Nicholas National Shrine will literally shine ”“ a dome lit from within, through layers of marble and glass ”“ over this memorial plaza.

“From our perspective, this is really about hope and the Resurrection,” said Christoforou, who is making videos about the project for young people. The “smoking hole in the ground” after 9/11 became an “archetypal symbol of death, grief and loss for millions. … We really need to believe that something can rise again out of that void.”

St. Nicholas vanished beneath a firestorm of concrete, steel, glass and heat. Few objects from the church survived, other than an embroidered velvet Bible cover minus its Bible, and a bell clapper minus its bell. Workers found marble altar fragments, a twisted candelabrum and beeswax candles ”“ which survived even though a 700-pound fireproof safe vanished.

“We remember this very place filled with ruins, hiding under piles of debris, the pulverized remains of 3,000 innocent victims. Breathing a very heavy air, saturated with the dust of storm, wood, iron and with tiny particles of human bodies, we remember walking with heavy hearts to the specific place where our St. Nicholas Church stood as a building for more than a century,” said Archbishop Demetrios, leader of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, during recent groundbreaking rites for the shrine.

“We stood there frozen, paralyzed, and cried.”

It was horrible, yet holy. A sanctuary had become a small collection of relics.

One icon that did survive is called the Life-Giving Font. Its Byzantine image shows the Virgin Mary embracing the Christ child above a font of blessed water that flows into a large marble basin below, which is shaped like a cross. In the symbolic language of iconography, this one image ”“ now connected to 9/11 ”“ combines baptism, sacrifice, death and new life.

The canvas icon is mounted on a wooden board that has been broken and crushed to the point that the ripped icon is all that is holding it together, said Father Evagoras Constantinides, a member of the archdiocese team on this project. It will be placed, with other objects found at the site, somewhere in the new shrine ”“ perhaps in the interfaith center for meditation and mourning, which will be outside the main sanctuary.

“We do have some relics, you might say, from the original church,” said Constantinides. “We know this place, this shrine, will become a destination point for pilgrims from all over the Orthodox world. But we also know that this is not a Greek thing. This is not just an Orthodox thing. This is for everyone.”

When it’s time to consecrate the church, he added, its leaders will focus on one final symbolic detail. The safe that vanished contained a gold-plated ossuary holding small bones from three saints, including the 4th century’s St. Nicholas of Myra, the patron saint of orphans, merchants, sailors and all those in distress.

“That is the time when we can reach out to other churches” around the world dedicated to St. Nicholas, said Constantinides. “That is when we will try to find a way to replace what was lost and bring St. Nicholas home again.”

— Terry Mattingly is the director of the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities and leads the GetReligion.org project to study religion and the news.

        filed under: