Icons of faith emerge from rubble of N.Y. disaster

All that remains of St. Nicholas Church is in two suitcases

January 15, 2002|By David W. Dunlap | David W. Dunlap,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK - All that remains of St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church can be contained in two suitcases.

The suitcases are kept at the headquarters of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America on the Upper East Side. They are something like Pandora's box, witness to unleashed evil. Within them is silent evidence of the random obliteration of the 82-year-old church at 155 Cedar St. when it was buried under the World Trade Center.

Wax candles survived unmelted, but a 600-pound safe disappeared. Inside were religious relics, bone fragments of St. Katherine, St. Sava and St. Nicholas himself, from whom Santa Claus evolved.

Out of the colossal wreckage emerged a single paper icon of St. Dionysios of Zakynthos, once covered in silver and framed in wood. But there is no silver. And there is no frame.

The police salvaged a hand-embroidered velvet kalyma, the ornamental cloth customarily draped over a Bible on a reading stand. But there is no Bible. And there is no stand.

Firefighters found a bulbous 16-inch clapper that used to hang in the bell cote atop the little church. But there is no bell. There is no bell cote. And there is no church.

"This just rendered everything into dust," said Archbishop Demetrios, the spiritual leader of Greek Orthodox Christians in America, who has visited the site at least half a dozen times.

Hope remains, too

Yet, out of utter destruction, the archbishop envisions not just a rebuilt parochial church on its old 22-by-55-foot site but something greater: a memorial shrine open to all visitors.

"There is the exciting possibility of having something additional," he said, "enhancing and enlarging the function from a purely Orthodox liturgical church to one offering counseling, support and interreligious meetings."

Archbishop Demetrios said he was encouraged in this vision by Gov. George E. Pataki, with whom he met recently. "He expressed his desire to help us in a substantive and creative way," the archbishop said.

Of St. Nicholas itself, he said, "It is in a state of transition but not eclipse."

For all the talk about what should be constructed on the trade center site, a new St. Nicholas might be the first of the lost buildings to rise again.

At least $2 million has already been promised for the effort, in amounts ranging from pocket change to six figures, and substantial pledges have come from the Greek government; the city of Bari, Italy, where the body of St. Nicholas is enshrined; Mayor Dimitris Avramopoulos of Athens, Greece, who sponsored a telethon; Christos M. Cotsakos, chairman and chief executive of Etrade Group; Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople; and the American Jewish Committee.

A half-dozen architects and engineers from the United States and Greece have volunteered their services, as have a New Jersey steel maker and a Greek woodcarver who offered to fashion a new altar screen, or iconostasis.

Before any thought is given to reconstruction, however, surveyors will have to pinpoint the exact boundaries of church property, since the devastation of Sept. 11 eradicated conventional points of reference.

"When we first pulled the steel of the south tower from the site, the entire church was compressed to about 2 feet high," said Emmanuel Velivasakis, a managing principal of Thornton-Tomasetti Group, supervising engineers of the recovery teams at ground zero.

There were no doors. There were no bricks. Just the fallen forest of trade-center beams. "I was crying like a baby," said the Rev. John Romas, pastor of the church, who had been with St. Nicholas for 30 years.

Founded in 1916

St. Nicholas was founded in 1916 in what was then a Middle Eastern quarter of Lower Manhattan. It moved into the former Cedar House tavern at 155 Cedar St. in 1919, converted it into a sanctuary and bought the four-story building in 1922.

Though tiny, St. Nicholas was well known by the 1930s for the ceremony of the Epiphany in January, when young divers would plunge off the Battery to retrieve a wooden crucifix that a priest had flung into the water.

The whitewashed church also served as a gentle spiritual counterpoint to the gigantism of the World Trade Center, which was under construction in 1971 when Romas arrived.

He did so with a sense of predestination, having tended to a small church called St. Nicholas in his hometown of Dorvistsia Naupaktias as a boy, when he was known as Ioannis Rampaounis. His father, who owned a flour mill nearby, encouraged Ioannis and his brother to clean the church and light its candles.

By the time Romas arrived at Manhattan's St. Nicholas, the neighborhood was entirely commercial. The 40 or 50 parishioners commuted on Sundays from Queens, Brooklyn, the Bronx, New Jersey and Westchester County. Some have followed Romas to SS. Constantine and Helen Cathedral in Brooklyn, where he is serving while he reclaims his church, piece by piece.

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