Manhattan’s Orthodox work to rebuild WTC church

NEW YORK – When the World Trade Center fell on September 11, it took a smaller icon with it – the tiny St Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, one of lower Manhattan’s treasures for most of a century. «I spent much of my life in that church and suddenly there was no church – only about 15 feet (five meters) of debris,» said the Rev John Romas, who has ministered to the congregation for the past 17 years and served as cantor for nearly as long before that. The congregants at St Nicholas, the only church destroyed in the attacks, have raised money worldwide for a reconstruction that will include a shrine to all trade center victims. They are hoping, too, that the debris of their church will eventually yield some of the congregation’s relics. Romas and others have searched through the debris for anything to salvage; an embroidered Bible covering and a bell clapper were among the items found. But the church’s most cherished relics – bone fragments of St Nicholas, St Catherine and St Sava – and religious icons given by the last czar of Russia, Nicholas II, are still missing. The relics were stored in a heavy fireproof safe, which has yet to be found at the site or at the landfill where debris from the terrorist attack has been taken. What was found at the church site was a section of the wing from American Flight 11, the plane that crashed into the trade center’s north tower on September 11. Two church workers inside the building during the attacks got out in time, but several members of the congregation were killed while working at the Twin Towers, Romas said. «They went to do a day’s work, get a day’s pay, and they never came back. They had plans to get a Christmas bonus. They had plans like everybody else, and they never got home,» Romas said. The church building, within a block of the trade center, was erected in 1832 as a residence, and later became a tavern. Greek immigrants bought the building in 1916 and converted it into a church. Among the first parishioners at the tiny church – just 22 feet (seven meters) wide, 56 feet (17 meters) long and 35 feet (11 meters) high, with only about a dozen pews – were the parents of «Kojak» actor Telly Savalas. In addition to holding Sunday services for about 80 parishioners, St Nicholas was open to the community at midday on Wednesdays, when many trade center workers of various faiths would stop by to meditate or pray. Church leaders plan to rebuild with insurance money and more than $2 million donated to a reconstruction fund, including $500,000 from Bari, Italy, a town whose patron protector is St Nicholas. The contribution «unites us spiritually, not just the people of the two cities but also Catholics with our Orthodox brethren,» said the Rev Giovanni Matera, the superior of the Basilica of St Nicholas in Bari.

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