NEW YORK – With less than a year left in the reconstruction of St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church and National Shrine, Michael Psaros foresees a church that honors the lives that were lost during the September 11, 2001, terrorist attack on New York.
The original church was destroyed when the South Tower of the World Trade Center collapsed.
“St. Nicholas Shrine is a cenotaph to the 3,000 people that were murdered, martyred and killed on that day,” Psaros told Crux. “At ground zero today you have the museums, you have the reflecting pools, but now you have faith. You have this magnificent structure whose doors will be open to people of all faiths around the world.”
Psaros is vice-chairman of Friends of Saint Nicholas, a non-profit created in December 2019 to help with the project. In his conversation with Crux, he said the reconstruction is on schedule to have the exterior ready for September 11 this year – the 20th anniversary of the attack – with plans to light the church at dusk on September 10.
On Wednesday, the organization also announced that since it began fundraising in January 2020 it has raised $55 million in donations, which Psaros said not only covers construction costs, but half of the $20 million endowment goal. Donations to rebuild the church in the years before the organization took over the project were $40 million, for a total of $95 million raised since 2001.
The donations since 2020 have ranged, Psaros said, from a donation of $10 million from the Spanos family – owners of the Los Angeles Chargers football team – to $100 checks sent in from kids all over the country raised through bake sales and other projects.
“If you think about Manhattan, and lower Manhattan, it is the citadel of secularism, and yet we have all of these various constituencies and parties building this church,” Psaros said. “The response by our donor community has been humbling. It’s so overwhelming. It has been prayerful and just amazing.”
In the statement, Archbishop Elpidophoros of America thanked all those that contributed.
“As a community, we can be very proud of the generosity and commitment of the benefactors and supporters of Saint Nicholas,” Elpidophoros said. “Even in the midst of the pandemic, Greek Orthodox leaders came together from across America to resurrect the Shrine. Now, the finish line is within our grasp.”
St. Nicholas was originally founded in 1916 in a small row house that had been used as a tavern, after Greek immigrants purchased it as a community home in 1892. That church remained in the same spot – 155 Cedar Street – even as lower Manhattan transformed itself around it.
“St. Nicholas, even though it was tiny, had an outsize impact on the New York community whether you were Orthodox or not because you had this beautiful little jewel box of a church, which was inside the façade of a plain looking building that offered a place for people at lunch time to have a place of contemplation, light a candle, perhaps attend a liturgy,” Psaros said.
The new St. Nicholas is located at 130 Liberty Street, adjacent to the 9/11 Memorial. Psaros described the design of the new church as a modern interpretation of St. Sophia in Constantinople, calling it “beyond elegant” and “breathtaking.”
“It will be for our Orthodox community, our American Parthenon and our American St. Sophia,” Psaros said.
He also notes that once the church opens, the second floor will have a non-denominational ecumenical bereavement center where people of all faiths can go to say a prayer, light a candle, or pay their respects however their religion feels appropriate.
After the exterior of the St. Nicholas is unveiled in September, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople – the spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians – will visit the church on Nov. 2 to officiate the door-opening ceremony.
It’s estimated the church will be complete in March or April of 2022. Psaros said the church’s return “represents a triumph of light over darkness.”
Follow John Lavenburg on Twitter: @johnlavenburg