During the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church was crushed by the falling south tower of the World Trade Center. Now, 21 years later, the church has reopened its doors. Its first parishioners celebrated the feast of Saint Nicholas last week.
The new building is in an elevated section of Liberty Park, overlooking the memorial plaza. It will function as both a church and a shrine to 9/11 victims.
“It’s such a source of pride and joy for the Greek Orthodox being able to once again have this jewel box built here on Ground Zero in the middle of the World Trade Center,” presiding priest Father Andreas Vithoulkas tells CBS New York.
Designed by architect Santiago Calatrava, the Byzantine-influenced building contains “a fortune’s worth of Pentelic marble” donated by the Greek government, according to Curbed’s Justin Davidson. (Pentelic marble was frequently used in Greek and Roman architecture—including, famously, the Acropolis.)
Calatrava is known for his glitzy, monumental work, including the Oculus, a massive transit and shopping space in the World Trade Center. Those who have seen both structures may recognize a restrained version of his signature style in the church.
“The Oculus is a work of big gestures; the church is a triumph of fine detail,” writes Curbed. “The Oculus is a train station with ambitions to be a cathedral; St. Nicholas is content to be a little local church.”
A monk, Father Loukas of Xenophontos, painted the stunning murals inside the newly reopened structure. He portrays Saint Nicholas as a seafarer, pulling a drowning man from raging waters. This image is supposed to be a loose metaphor, showing how the church can be a place of solace to contemplate the terrorist attacks.
But the monk also addresses 9/11 more directly: In one scene, Jesus greets first responders and firefighters who died. In another, boats on the river rescue people fleeing the burning towers. Also prominently displayed is an image of Mary watching over a panoramic depiction of Manhattan; One World Trade Center is clearly recognizable, rising up on the left.
“I personally want this church, through the iconography, to open up a new horizon for people, that they come away with hope,” Father Loukas told CBS News’ Scott Pelley in 2020. “If this happens, the icons will have fulfilled their purpose.”
The church weathered a litany of setbacks during the two-decade reconstruction project. Beginning around 2008, a legal battle with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which owns the World Trade Center campus, over where the church would be able to rebuild dragged on for years. Groundbreaking on the project began in 2014, but funding problems in 2017 caused work to come to a sudden halt, according to Karen Matthews of the Associated Press (AP). The project started back up in 2020, but more delays meant it couldn’t be completed in time for the 20th anniversary of the attacks on September 11, 2021.
“Today is a joyous day for America and for New York,” Michael Psaros, chair of Friends of St. Nicholas, which fundraises for the church, said at the opening last week, per the AP. “We invite all of America to please come visit, to come to the cenotaph that was created and built in memory of 3,000 people who were martyred and murdered on September 11.”
Prior to 9/11, the church stood in lower Manhattan for almost a century. It was founded in 1916 in what had previously been a tavern. The little building stood sentinel through the decades as skyscrapers grew up around it.
“It’s very emotional to me. My legacy started 100 years ago when my grandparents came from Greece and settled here in Lower Manhattan and got together with other Greeks and opened up the original St. Nicholas,” a woman who attended the opening told CBS New York. “We waited 21 years to open St. Nicholas Church, so it’s a big day for us.”