The Saint Nicholas Church and National Shrine officially opened on Tuesday, within the World Trade Center complex, more than 21 years after the original church was destroyed at a site nearby in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. On a date timed to coincide with the annual feast of Saint Nicholas, the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America welcomed the public for the first time into the building, designed by renowned architect Santiago Calatrava, who also created the nearby Oculus, also in the World Trade Center.
Mr. Calatrava’s design for the new Saint Nicholas draws inspiration, in part, from two Byzantine churches in Istanbul: the Hagia Sophia (a Greek Orthodox cathedral dating from the year 306 that, in 2020 was controversially converted into a mosque by the government of Turkey) and Church of the Holy Savior. The dome of the Church (like that of the Hagia Sophia) features 40 ribs, alternating with 40 narrow windows. The structure’s facade is comprised entirely of the same Pentelic marble that adorns the Acropolis, in Athens. The new structure’s translucent walls are designed to glow in the evening hours, providing both a literal and a figurative beacon to the World Trade Center campus.
The architect said in a statement, “to see the Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church and National Shrine finally open is emblematic of Lower Manhattan’s storied future and defining past. I hope to see this structure serve its purpose as a sanctuary for worship, but also as a place for reflection on what the City endured and how it is moving forward. Architecture can have an intrinsic symbolic value, which is not written or expressed in a specific way but in an abstract and synthetic manner, sending a message and thus leaving a lasting legacy.”
Archbishop Elpidophoros, the spiritual leader of the Greek Orthodox Church in the United States, said, “this Shrine will be a place for everyone who comes to the sacred ground at the World Trade Center, a place for them to imagine and envision a world where mercy is inevitable, reconciliation is desirable, and forgiveness is possible. We will stand here for the centuries to come, as a light on the hill, a shining beacon to the world of what is possible in the human spirit, if we will only allow our light to shine before all people, as the light of this Shrine for the Nation will illuminate every night sky to come in our magnificent City.”
The new Church replaces a historic structure, dating from the 1830s, that hosted Orthodox congregations from 1922 onward, when Greek families living in Lower Manhattan raised sufficient funds to purchase building, which had previously served as a private home and a tavern. Eight decades later, that building (located on Cedar Street, between West and Washington Streets) was destroyed by falling debris from the collapsing Twin Towers.
Planning for a new Saint Nicholas began soon afterward, but the journey to Tuesday’s opening was marked by multiple setbacks. Like many rebuilding projects in and around the World Trade Center site, the effort to reconstruct the Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church struggled with spiraling costs. Originally budgeted at $38 million, the price tag for the church had swollen to an estimated $95 million by the time it was completed.
Those overruns arose in spite of a remarkably generous deal from a phalanx of government agencies that have subsidized the project by providing the free use of public land that is worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Multiple arms of government—including the Battery Park City Authority and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey—partnered on a complicated deal that was finalized in 2011, designed to keep the Church at Ground Zero. This deal revolved around a land swap, exchanging the Church’s original parcel on Cedar Street with the current site at Washington and Liberty Streets.
The exchange made sense for all parties, because the Port Authority (which owns the World Trade Center site) needed the plot on which the original Saint Nicholas had stood for a other structures at the rebuilt complex, as well as for Liberty Park. In return, Saint Nicholas received a site that offers much greater visual prominence than its original location. The new location is also vastly more valuable, in financial terms. But given the use to which the Archdiocese has committed, this monetary value becomes irrelevant. Indeed, because the Port Authority insisted on a non-denominational component to the building’s use, Saint Nicholas will also be home to a bereavement center.
The site chosen for the new Church is publicly owned, and leased by the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese from the Port Authority. The terms of this lease allow the Saint Nicholas Church to remain on government-owned land at the World Trade Center site for a minimum of 198 years, in exchange for a nominal rent of $1 per year. This lease also provides for one optional renewal period of an additional 99 years. Under these terms, the Church’s position is secure through the year 2314. But rather than pay $297 in rent for the next three centuries, the Church also has the right to buy the space, also for a price of $1. That noted, the financial commitment by Saint Nicholas and the Greek Archdiocese is nonetheless significant. They will be called upon to bear an annual cost of approximately $1 million to fund security, maintenance, and energy.
In December, 2017, Skanska USA, the prime contractor leading the effort to rebuild the Church issued a letter to its subcontractors, advising them that the firm had terminated its contract with the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese (GOA), “on account of GOA’s defaults in making payment under the Owner Contract.” The same letter notified all subcontractors that, “effective immediately, you are directed to stop all work.” For the next two years, activity at the site was limited to contractors entering to remove equipment, while security personnel cordoned off the area.
That development followed a year of fiscal crises and financial scandal within the Greek Orthodox Church, which had acknowledged several months earlier a deficit of more than $8 million, while announcing the layoffs of dozens of employees, and the departure of the organization’s longtime financial overseer, Jerry Dimitriou. Around the same time, the Archdiocese announced the formation of a Special Investigative Committee for Saint Nicholas National Shrine, “to investigate and evaluate expenditures related to (1) the Saint Nicholas Shrine construction project, and (2) the potential use of certain Saint Nicholas Shrine restricted funds for the payment of Archdiocesan general operating expenses.”
To restart the project and sort out its finances, the Greek Archdiocese tapped Dennis Mehiel, a noted philanthropist and widely respected leader within the Greek-American community, who also served as chairman of the Battery Park City Authority from 2012 to 2018. His business sense and financial sophistication appear to have brought much-needed managerial expertise to the project, which resumed construction in late 2019. Months later, however, a new setback once again halted work, as the Covid pandemic paused the New York economy.
This development precluded Mr. Mehiel’s original goal of opening the new Saint Nicholas on the twentieth anniversary of September 11, 2001. But in the end, the momentum to complete the project was unstoppable. As construction work neared completion over the summer, the building was formally consecrated in July. And with the finishing touches finally added, the new Saint Nicholas Church and National Shrine opened on Tuesday.