A search for holiness amid rubble

Greek Orthodox priest seeks relics of saints, while hoping to rebuild

Terrorism Strikes America

September 30, 2001|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

NEW YORK - The heart of St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church lies buried at ground zero. Precious relics sacred to the community's worship have yet to be found.

The Rev. John Romas, who has served at St. Nicholas for 17 years, can only hope that they survived the destruction that followed the terrorist attack Sept. 11 on the nearby World Trade Center.

He has been to the area more than once to look for a safe containing the relics. His first visit was on the day after the attack. He found that his church, which once stood 250 feet from the center's towers, had vanished.

"My church was down on the ground. It was 15-feet-high debris," said Romas. "I started to cry. Then I looked to my left side and there were so many people who had died."

Baltimore ties

Donations from as far away as Greece and Italy have poured in to help rebuild the tiny church. Additional funds are coming in as part of a general appeal by the Greek Orthodox Church in America.

The Rev. Constantine M. Monios of Baltimore's Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Annunciation estimates that the city's Orthodox community has donated about $10,000. The parishioners at the cathedral have a special connection to St. Nicholas. Romas' wife, Lorraine, sews many of the vestments worn by the church's priests.

"We're all trying to raise funds to rebuild that church," said Monios.

For years, St. Nicholas stood at 155 Cedar St., in the middle of New York's financial district, American and Greek flags flying near its doors. In what had been a residence and later a tavern, the tiny church remained as the neighborhood around it changed and skyscrapers cast their long shadows across its doors.

Founded 85 years ago, the church moved to the Cedar Street address in 1922. It originally served the Greek immigrants who once lived in the area. Sailors arriving in New York stopped there to light candles and give thanks for their successful voyages. St. Nicholas is the patron saint of travelers.

In recent years, the church opened Wednesdays and became a place of spiritual comfort and meditative peace in lower Manhattan.

Now Romas is on a mission to retrieve the sacred relics of Sts. Nicholas, Katherine and Sava. They had been kept in a safe on the church's top floor.

City officials discouraged an early attempt to search the ruins, citing the danger in the area.

Still, Romas and Archbishop Demetrios, primate of the Greek Orthodox Church in America, were able to visit the site and offer prayers.

Nikki Stephanopoulos, a spokesman for the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese, said the relics are "the most sacred part of the altar. ... A liturgy cannot be held without the relics."

Part of worship

As part of his search, Romas recently made a trip to the vast Fresh Kills landfill in Staten Island. Investigators there are poring over material brought in from the World Trade Center. He left with nothing more than hope.

"They told me if they find something they'll tell me," he said.

Sacred relics are a crucial part of worship in the Greek Orthodox community. Their role dates to the early Christians, who often held services over the tombs of martyrs and other revered members of the Church, said Monios.

Veneration of relics continued after the Emperor Constantine ended the persecution of Christianity in the Roman Empire. Today, every Greek Orthodox church receives relics at its consecration.

"It reminds us of the early years of persecution and how the church survived then," said Monios. "There has to be an attempt to retrieve those relics. ... We can't just let them be thrown into a barge, or whatever."

Romas said he will keep trying to retrieve the relics of St. Nicholas, but if he cannot, then he will appeal to the archdiocese for help in acquiring another set for his church.

His main goal, however, is that St. Nicholas will return to its old home on Cedar Street.

"St. Nicholas will rebuild, no question about it," said Romas. "That church will be a memorial to all of those people down there, including St. Nicholas."

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