All are familiar with the devastation wrought upon our nation twenty years ago on September 11, 2001. The shock, the images of crumbling buildings, the outrage and hurt over the 3,000 innocent lives lost are all apart of our national consciousness. Far fewer, however, are aware that in the midst of all the devastation there was also a house of worship destroyed in the attacks. It was the tiny yet historic Greek Orthodox Church of Saint Nicholas located in the shadow of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. Twenty years later, all Christians and people of good will can rejoice that it is finally being rebuilt—a structure specifically designed to emanate light, as if to scatter the darkness of that day.
It is being rebuilt as more than the humble church that it was, as a National Shrine in honor of St. Nicholas, and a place of pilgrimage for our entire nation, intended to be a house of prayer for all people. Just as it is fitting that today’s feast of St. Nicholas of Myra falls during the Season of Advent as we joyfully anticipate the celebration of Our Lord’s Nativity on Christmas, it is fitting that this national shrine in the saint’s honor be located in New York City, the place where the popular vision of this saint’s connection to Christmas was born.
St. Nicholas is, of course, the inspiration of the figure of Santa Claus. This prominent feature of the American popular culture surrounding Christmas has its origins in late 18th-century New York, which was first established as the Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam in 1624. The Dutch brought their devotion to St. Nicholas with them to the New World, affectionately referring to him as “Sinter Klaas” which is a shortened form of “Sint Nikolass, Saint Nicholas.”
In 1664, the English took over New Amsterdam and renamed it New York after the Duke of York, who later ruled as King of England and Ireland as James II and Scotland as James VII—the last Catholic monarch of those realms.
In 1809, Washington Irving published his first book, A History of New York, on December 6th, St. Nicholas’ feast day. This was a wildly popular satire of the time told by the character Diedrich Knickerbocker. The word knickerbocker became a term used to refer to those living in Manhattan. Most know it today by its shortened form “Knick,” which was adopted by New York’s professional basketball team. In Irving’s History there is a story about the shipwreck of a Dutch scouting party on Manhattan where St. Nicholas appears to Olof Van Cortlandt in 1637. St. Nicholas appeared to him in a dream after riding in his wagon bringing his yearly presents to children. He then proceeded to give Olof the inspiration to have the Dutch settle the island. According to this tale, St. Nicholas can be considered a kind of founding father of New York City.
In 1823, an Episcopalian clergyman named Clement Clark Moore, published the poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” more popularly known as “Twas the Night Before Christmas” from its first line. This poem is largely responsible for the conceptions we have of Santa Claus today—he is presented as riding on a sleigh pulled by eight reindeer, landing on the roof of a home and descending the chimney filling stockings hanging by the fireplace with toys. Clement Clark Moore is buried at the cemetery of the historic Trinity Church in lower Manhattan which is just a short walk away from the World Trade Center.
So, again, it is fitting that a national shrine dedicated in Saint Nicholas’ honor be in New York City.
The original Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church was built as a private home in 1830 and was later used as a tavern. It was a modest three-story structure. A fourth was added when it was converted into a church by the small Greek immigrant community who founded the church in 1916. The building was only 22 feet wide, 56 feet long and 35 feet tall. Over the years, the small community resisted the many attempts made to purchase the property as the many large skyscrapers of New York’s financial district developed around it, including the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. The juxtaposition was made all the more apparent because it came to be surrounded by a parking lot. Before the attacks of September 11, 2001, the congregation consisted of about 70 families.
The tiny church was completely destroyed when the South Tower collapsed in the terrorist attacks. No one was inside the church at the time. Lost in the attack were relics of St. Nicholas donated to the Orthodox community of New York by Nicholas II, the last tsar of Russia.
The long affair of its rebuild is complicated story in and of itself. The project was delayed due to contentious negotiations with the Port Authority of New York and the criminal embezzling of funds donated for the church’s reconstruction. Eventually it was decided that the new structure would be located at 130 Liberty Street, just a stone’s throw from the church’s original location. Its construction is nearing completion, which is expected to come at the Orthodox celebration of Easter in 2022. It will be formally consecrated on July 4, 2022, as a sign it is a shrine where all Americans are welcome.
The new St. Nicholas Church is a modern interpretation of the Hagia Sophia in modern-day Istanbul. The round structure toped by a dome consists of gleaming white walls that along with the dome are completely translucent so that light from within the church can radiate to the outside. On September 11, 2021, twenty years to the day since the original church was reduced to ruin, the church was illumined for the first time—a symbol of the Light of Christ that can never be overcome by the darkness of evil.
On November 2, 2021, the leader of Orthodox Christianity, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew, was in New York to preside over the traditional Thyranoixia service officially opening the doors of the church. In the same service he oversaw the elevation of the cross atop the church dome. Patriarch Bartholomew commented,
Today, the Cross of our Lord reminds each and every one of us that through death, he has conquered death. And the resurrection of the Saint Nicholas Church is an affirmation of our Hope of the Resurrection and life Eternal through Jesus Christ, our Lord.
Timothy Cardinal Dolan, the Catholic Archbishop of New York, was also in attendance at the hopeful event.
Advent is a time when the world, immersed in the darkness of sin and death, awaits the coming of the promised Redeemer. At Christmas, Christ is the Light that comes into the world to scatter the darkness. The rebuilding of the National Shrine of Saint Nicholas at Ground Zero is a joyful reflection of the divine light, which shines forth in the saints and heals the wounds and memories of the darkness of September 11, 2001.
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