In an event hosted by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and attended by Mayor Bill DeBlasio, Archbishop of America Elpidophoros and other notables on Monday, the governor announced the resumption of the reconstruction of the St. Nicholas Shrine at Manhattan’s Ground Zero.
The Greek Orthodox Church was the only religious building to be destroyed in the September 11th terrorist attacks.
“The start of construction on the new St. Nicholas Church echoes the overarching message of these challenging times: We are going to build back the way we built back from 9/11, and it will be better and stronger with more solidarity and more faith and more spirit of community than ever before,” Governor Cuomo stated triumphantly.
“This St. Nicholas is going to be more splendid and more inviting than the St. Nicholas that was here before. We have gone through difficult times together, but we rise from the ashes and we rise stronger than ever before. That’s what this St. Nicholas will stand for. It is a powerful message to all New Yorkers and all Americans,” the governor added.
At the Monday ceremony, Archbishop Elpidophoros thanked all those at Skanska Construction, who are responsible for the rebuilding of the partially-constructed shrine, as well as “the Friends of St. Nicholas and all others who kept the faith and made all the difference.”
In extremely pointed remarks, Elpidophoros also reminded those present of the recent reconversion of the great cathedral of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul into a mosque. “The greatest church ever in the history of the world,” he said, “was taken from us… in an act of domination and chauvinism.”
Seemingly tying that recent takeover to the events of twenty years ago, in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Archbishop Elpidophoros said of the destruction of that day, which resulted in the compete obliteration of the previous Shrine, “We shall not let this stand!” adding “We are going to open this Shrine as a sign of love, not hate.”
He declared that the new, rebuilt Shrine will represent “an ideal that exists in this America, a nation where no one is excluded but all are embraced.”
In his final remarks, His Eminence asked all present to pray for all those lost in the terror attacks of 9/11.
A construction crane was spotted at the site recently, which for almost twenty years has served as a point of contention in Greek-American circles. The focus of a probe into its finances revealed that there was no major malfeasance but the board governing the reconstruction was reconfigured in the past year.
Michael Psaros, the President of the Friends of St. Nicholas, the group primarily responsible for the fundraising needed for the reconstruction, spoke to Greek Reporter recently.
Psaros noted that “once completed, the Greek Orthodox shrine “would be the single most-visited church in New York — and maybe in the U.S.”
“The New York authorities estimate that up to ten million visitors a year would visit this church. It would become the beacon, the symbol of Orthodoxy not just in the U.S., but in the world,” Psaros adds.
“We are not just building this extraordinary monument of Orthodoxy but we also building a memorial to all those slaughtered, murdered, massacred and martyred on September the 11th.”
Named after the patron saint of sailors, the church was the first stopping point for many Greek immigrants after they left Ellis Island. As skyscrapers went up around it, the modest church added one floor to the whitewashed structure that sat, for years, in the shadow of the Twin Towers. The building was reduced to a ruin when the south tower collapsed on Sept. 11, 2001.
Psaros is proud to be among the Friends, what he calls “an extraordinarily committed group,” which is trying to raise an extra $42 million to finish the long-delayed project.
“We have already raised and spent $6 million. We need another $36 million,” he says, easily managing to sound optimistic as numerous pledges from prominent Greek Americans and philanthropic organizations keep flowing in.
Psaros says that Faith (a non-profit supporting the Greek Orthodox Church) has pledged 20 million and the Spanos family alone has pledged 10 million. Leadership 100 (another non-profit supporting the Greek Orthodox Church) has pledged an additional 5 million. In addition, there are approximately $5 to $8 million in outstanding pledges already designated for the project.
“I am hoping that by the end of March, if we could turn these pledges into cash, we will have raised the money to complete the church,” Psaros assured Greek Reporter at the time of the interview.
He encourages the Greek American and Orthodox community to “grab the opportunity to be part of history,” reminding the faithful that “Every single donation, whether it’s a million or one dollar, will be recorded in a database that all future visitors would be able to access.”
For the Greek-American businessman the first milestone may have been at the end of March, but the most important one will be reached only upon the church’s long-awaited completion. He notes that Archbishop Elpidophoros, the head of the Greek Orthodox Church in the US, has recently pledged that Saint Nicholas will be ready to open its doors by September 11, 2021, the twentieth anniversary of that fateful day.
At a December, 2019 meeting with the Governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, Archbishop, who is the head of the Orthodox Church in the United States, said: “On behalf of the Greek Orthodox faithful, I pledge to you, Governor Cuomo, and to all the people of New York, that we will be ready; we will be on time; and we will be open to all women and men of good will who wish to honor the memory of all who perished on September eleventh.”
Psaros wants to leave behind the many delays in the project and accusations of mismanagement and theft in the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. In June 2019, the U.S. Attorney’s Office announced that George Papadakos, the Archdiocese’s former Director of Finance, has pled guilty to embezzling more than $60,000 of Archdiocesan funds for personal expenses.
In November 2019, the former executive director of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese in America, Jerome Dimitriou, was arrested on charges he embezzled more than $500,000 from the church.
The cost of the project once pegged at $30 million could now reach upwards of $80 million. Some blame the pricey design changes on famed architect Santiago Calatrava, others on the church leaders.
“Whatever happened before, it happened,” Psaros tells Greek Reporter.
“The project stopped under the old management because it was not professionally managed,” he explains.
“Too many change orders were made and the project ran out of money. That will not happen going forward. We have an independent organization managing the construction; it will be done professionally.”
Asked by Greek Reporter, Psaros also dismisses the accusations of theft which have dogged the project.
“PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PwC), which is the world’s largest accounting firm, spent over 18 months and did two audits of the money raised — all the way back to the beginning. Not a single dollar was stolen or misappropriated,” he states emphatically.
The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, along with Skanska, the multinational construction company, is responsible for the redevelopment of the area and the reconstruction of the edifice.
In January of this year, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced in a visit to Archbishop Elpidophoros that the rebuilding of the church would resume once again following the two-year delay caused by the uncertainty over its funding and financial oversight.
Cuomo said in a tweet after the meeting “The rebuilding of St. Nicholas Church, destroyed on 9/11, is a moment of healing, not only for the Greek Orthodox community but for all NYers.”
At an official visit to the site on the feast day of St. Nicholas, Dec. 6, 2019, the Archbishop stated “We too shall be victorious here at the World Trade Center. And Nikolaos – ‘the Victory of the People’ – shall stand as a testimony that Faith overcomes doubt, Hope overturns despair, and Love conquers all!”