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Missing from Ground Zero: St. Nicholas Church

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After 10 years, I am back downtown. I worked in the Municipal Building, City Hall, One World Trade Center, and Two World Financial Center before taking a job in midtown, the land of lawyers, bankers, real estate barons, and upscale shops and restaurants. Downtown is more like the New York I grew up in -- 99₵ Stores, municipal employees, high-end bookstores, million-dollar-traders, fried egg breakfast joints, and the Capitol Grille all crammed into the area of the similarly diverse Dutch colony that started it all. I love it.

The window of my office offers only one view: directly into the pit that we euphemistically call Ground Zero. For me it's the World Trade Center and I still see the buildings in which I once worked, shopped, ate, and made and lost friends. I am struck by the progress being made finally to close the wound - One World Trade Center is climbing furiously toward the sky with Four not far behind, and the footprint of the Memorial is now becoming clear.

But one building is conspicuously absent: the Greek Orthodox Church of St. Nicholas.

I knew it well. While other churches in the area became tourist hotspots over the years due to their age and history, tiny St. Nicholas was the anomaly: a quiet spiritual sanctuary located alongside two of the tallest buildings in the world. I spent many hours there before and after my mother's passing in 1998 and noticed that it drew not only Orthodox Christians of every ethnicity, but also Catholics, Protestants, and even the unaffiliated who simply needed some peace.

Like most Orthodox Churches, St. Nicholas held relics of saints, including its namesake. St. Nicholas of Myra (270-346 AD) was known for his love of children and was especially beloved by the Dutch, who called him Sinterklaas and believed that he delivered treats to children on a special night every December. He was the patron saint of Amsterdam and it must have seemed only natural when in 1809 the New-York Historical Society retroactively named St. Nicholas the patron saint of Nieuw Amsterdam, i.e., New York City.

I find it amazing that holy relics of the saint arguably best known by people throughout the world regardless of faith were preserved for almost 1,700 years and then transported 5,000 miles to a small church in the extraordinary New World city of which he happened to be patron saint. And I like to believe that, when the Towers collapsed into the soil of lower Manhattan, crushing and incinerating St. Nicholas Church almost without a trace, those relics helped to sanctify that small piece of land in New Amsterdam now known as Ground Zero along with the thousands who died there.

Soon after the Towers fell, Port Authority officials joined Governor Pataki in a vow to build a new St. Nicholas on the World Trade Center site. Eventually a location was agreed at 130 Liberty Street that would allow a larger structure - a wise idea, since the church is likely to attract many of the thousands of pilgrims to the World Trade Center site who may appreciate the secular memorial but who also thirst for a spiritual memorial. If the raising of the World Trade Center is meaningful to us, the resurrection of the site's only sacred structure will also be especially poignant.

Sadly, the Port Authority and the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese were not able to agree on all details before the Port Authority, after many years of delay, suddenly kicked the WTC reconstruction project into gear and in the process unilaterally withdrew from talks with the Church. Former Governor Pataki held a press conference at the WTC site last week and called upon Chris Ward, Executive Director of the Port Authority, to uphold the commitment of the Port Authority and State of New York to help the Archdiocese raise a new, larger, and more accommodating St. Nicholas at the Liberty Street location. (The Archdiocese says it will cover all construction costs - all it asks is the site all parties agreed to.)

I hope that, instead of hardening against people of good will, Mr. Ward's heart will soften and one day soon I will look out my window and see religious leaders of all faiths celebrating the consecration of St. Nicholas of the Towers at 130 Liberty Street.

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Nick Balamaci has worked in communications roles for the Office of the Mayor of the City of New York, the Port Authority of NY & NJ, Merrill Lynch, and Citigroup.