John Katsimatides would often seek refuge from the noise, chaos and stress of working in the mecca of the world's financial center by visiting the tiny church of St. Nicholas, located literally a stone's throw from the front doors of Tower A of the World Trade Center in New York City.
To anyone visiting Lower Manhattan for the first time, the tiny church -- a structure occupying a total area the size of a few dozen parking spots -- 1,200-square feet to be exact -- stuck out like a weed in a manicured rose garden.
Picture it for yourself -- a tiny, whitewashed structure built-in the 19th century plopped right smack in the middle of modern, shiny skyscrapers in the busiest, most bustling neighborhood of one of the world's largest cities.
St. Nicholas Church was founded by Greek immigrants in 1916 and served generations of families and their spiritual needs. Countless weddings, baptisms and funerals were conducted in the tiny parish over the years as the neighborhood evolved from a Greek and Middle Eastern ghetto filled with row after row of tenement houses to its current status as the world's financial epicenter.
To John -- and countless other visitors from all walks of life who periodically sought the peace and tranquility of St. Nicholas -- the rose garden was actually the church.
Eighty-five years after its founding, the church was destroyed by the falling Twin Towers on September 11, 2001. Just like that -- almost nine decades as a place of tranquility and love to tens of thousands of people who visited -- the "rose garden" was uprooted by the crushing weight of rage and hatred.
Discussions began for the rebuilding of the church soon after the dust of the disaster had settled and the city had begun to heal. St. Nicholas was an important stakeholder in the dialogue -- legally, as a property owner in the immediate vicinity of the disaster area known as Ground Zero -- and symbolically, as the only house of worship destroyed in the terror attacks.
Almost immediately, the tiny church became a David amongst a field of Goliaths including the states of New York, Connecticut and New Jersey, their governors and local officials, several local New York agencies, hundreds of corporations, and of course (and most importantly) the victims' families.
As early as July 2002 -- less than a year after the attacks, the Port Authority issued a statement that affirmed it was looking at six different options for the reconstruction of the World Trade Center site. All six proposals that were set forth included "a rebuilt St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church," according to the official press release.
In July of 2008, the Port Authority and the representatives of the church ultimately agreed that the church's existing land would be swapped for a larger parcel less than a hundred yards away.
In exchange for the original church land, the Port Authority agreed to donate $20 million toward construction since the new St. Nicholas church would be built on a platform above a bomb screening center -- not an ideal location for a house of worship that would ultimately become a gathering place of people from throughout the world, as well as the new home to the original St. Nicholas congregation.
Then, abruptly in March of 2009, the Port Authority sent a curt email to the representatives of the church stating that negotiations would be "terminated," ultimately reneging on its previous agreements with the church officials that were well documented and publicly noted by officials.
Shortly thereafter the Port Authority illegally moved in on the Church's property, put up a fence and began excavating on it -- without even notifying the owners -- claiming that they needed to begin construction on the screening center underground.
There has hardly been any media coverage of these incidents surrounding tiny St. Nicholas. Only a brief blip -- when the controversy erupted over the building of the mosque that was dubbed the Ground Zero Mosque by the media, politicians and those who fanned the flames of controversy.
Ironically they were way off base when they named it the Ground Zero Mosque since the proposed site of the Islamic center was nowhere near Ground Zero -- not within earshot nor even in view of Ground Zero, but down a street and around several corners, tucked away on a nondescript street with storefronts, a strip joint and Chinese take-out restaurants.
On the contrary, St. Nicholas is the Ground Zero Church. It was destroyed on September 11th -- the only house of worship to be destroyed in the attacks -- and was located right smack in the middle of what is today called "Ground Zero." Yet the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey is standing in the way of the rebuilding of the Ground Zero Church.
On this solemn anniversary, 10 years since that day that changed American history forever, the void remains in the hearts of so many people who lost someone. This will never change. John Katsimatides' family will never have him -- and others who perished in the attacks -- back, ever again.
For what it's worth -- although this can never be enough to console the survivors -- the names of those who perished will be remembered on a fitting memorial that will be built to honor them.
The office buildings will be rebuilt -- bigger, and stronger than before -- sending a message of American defiance to terror.
But the tiny Ground Zero Church where John Katsimatides and so many others sought tranquility in a turbulent world -- the final piece in the Ground Zero puzzle remains elusive.
When I contacted the Greek Orthodox Church for a comment on the matter, I received an email from Fr. Mark Arey, the Archdiocesan spokesperson for the St. Nicholas matter. He said:
At a time when the message of tolerance, mutual respect and interfaith understanding is needed now more than ever, shouldn't every American advocate for the re-building of St. Nicholas? In the center of the Plaza at Ground Zero, there is a single Callery pear tree, brought back to life after the attacks of September 11th rendered it a charred, pitiful stump. This tree was brought back for a reason, the very same reason that St. Nicholas must be brought back, the same reason that St. Nicholas will be brought back.
Fr. Mark is right. For America's sake -- St. Nicholas must be rebuilt.
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