On September 22, 2001, Greek Orthodox Archbishop Demetrios of America led a prayer service on the grounds of the destroyed St. Nicholas Church at Ground Zero in memory of the thousands of people who lost their lives in the World Trade Center attacks 11 days earlier.
The ceremony marked the first memorial service held on the premises, where the historic church remained buried under tons of fallen debris from the attack.
St. Nicholas Church was buried by the collapse of the World Trade Center’s south tower, but no one died during the incident, as the church’s sexton and an electrician escaped with minutes to spare.
A report in the Orthodox Observer newspaper said that before the tower collapsed, part of the crashed airplane’s landing gear was seen resting atop the church. Observers nearby also spotted human remains — presumably belonging either to victims who had jumped or fallen from the towers, or to passengers of the hijacked planes.
Authorities recovered very little of the church’s items. The church lost numerous valuable possessions including select relics of St. Nicholas, St. Catherine and St. Sava, which it had received via donation from Nicholas II, the last tsar of Russia.
Church clergy had removed the relics from their keeping plays on holy days for veneration.
To Archbishop Demetrios, the notion that the saints’ relics remained intermingled with remains of 9/11 victims only served to sanctify the site further.
“Imagine,” he said at the time, “a cemetery that somehow has been a burial place for many centuries.”
Authorities eventually recovered damaged icons of St. Dionysios of Zakynthos and the Life-giving Spring, as well as various miscellaneous religious items.
The tiny church building was constructed around 1832, when it originally served as a residence and later a tavern before parishioners purchased the property.
Greek immigrants established St. Nicholas Church in 1916, purchasing the structure for $25,000. Among the church’s unique characteristics were its small size and its uniquely gifted icons from final Russian Tsar Nicholas II.
Following its collapse, authorities announced plans to build a new St. Nicholas Church nearby the original site and received more than $2 million in donations — as well as additional pledges of construction materials and appointments.
The city of Bari, Italy, where the relics of St. Nicholas were originally bestowed, donated $500,000, while the Greek government and the Ecumenical Patriarchate donated $750,000 and $50,000 — respectively.
The church would again house a worshipping congregation, while a museum would also be built for the projected large influx of visitors expected to come to the site.
The church would also function as a national shrine for people of all faiths to visit.
But over the past decade the property has generated national controversy for the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, which has been accused of mishandling tens of millions of dollars raised by hundreds of thousands of donors throughout the United States.
In 2017, the project stalled for almost two years when money ran out and the Archdiocese stopped paying the principal contractor — Skanska.
It was eventually revealed that Church leaders “misappropriated segregated or restricted funds,” that were raised specifically for St. Nicholas. Furthermore, Archbishop Demetrios ordered changes to the existing construction — specifically to the dome — which he wanted to glow at night. His ordered changes reportedly increased costs by millions of dollars.
Almost $40 million has already been raised and spent. The Archdiocese said it would take an additional $40 million to finish the church.
In April 2019, reports from New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s office said that he had assembled a team of seven millionaire and billionaire donors committed to putting up the money to complete the project.
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