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Ground Zero church illumination will be highlight of 9/11 memorial

saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church and National Shrine

lev radin | Shutterstock

John Burger - published on 09/10/21

New Greek Orthodox church is taking shape 20 years after precursor destroyed in collapse of Twin Towers.

The successor to the only religious building destroyed 20 years ago on 9/11 will be illuminated this Friday night for the first time.

The ceremonial lighting of St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church and National Shrine at the World Trade Center in New York marks a major milestone for the church, which replaces a small one destroyed by the collapse of one of the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001. 

Archbishop Elpidophoros of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America will conduct a memorial service for the 20th anniversary remembrance of the terrorist attacks and preside over the first lighting of the re-built church. 

“Ground zero is worldwide known as as a place of religious hatred and violence, and the results of this religious hatred and violence,” said Archbishop Elpidophoros, according to the Associated Press, referring to the motives of the radical Islamists behind the attack. “Part of our responsibility was to restore the reputation of religion … as a factor of uniting people.”

“Designed by the world-renowned architect Santiago Calatrava, the National Shrine, with its signature glow sitting atop Liberty Park and overlooking the Memorial Pools and the 9/11 Museum, will welcome all people of all walks of faith, to remembrance and contemplation,” said a press release from the shrine. 

Though the church is not expected to be completed until next year, it also is preparing for a visit from Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople – “first among equals” of all the Orthodox patriarchs. Bartholomew is scheduled to officiate at a door-opening ceremony on November 2.

Modeled after Hagia Sophia

The church has several unique features, including a profile roughly based on the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul — once the cathedral of the Church of Constantinople. It also uses material that connects it with ancient Greek culture: its exterior panels are Pentelic marble, coming from the same source as the stone used in the Parthenon in Athens.

“It will be for our Orthodox community, our American Parthenon and our American St. Sophia,” Michael Psaros, vice-chairman of Friends of Saint Nicholas, a non-profit raising funds for the building project, told Crux

The marble is cut very thin so that, illuminated from the inside, the church will be “like a beacon of hope, during the night,” Calatrava told the Associated Press. 

“Building the church with Pentelic stone adds another level of symbolism, because … I consider Hagia Sophia the Parthenon of Orthodoxy,” he added. 

A Greek iconographer is integrating traditional designs with imagery from 9/11, including tributes to rescue workers who lost their lives, AP reported.

Psaros said that the second floor of the shrine, located at 130 Liberty Street in lower Manhattan, adjacent to the 9/11 Memorial, will have a non-denominational ecumenical bereavement center open to the public to “say a prayer, light a candle, or pay their respects however their religion feels appropriate,” Crux reported.

“St. Nicholas Shrine is a cenotaph to the 3,000 people that were murdered, martyred and killed” on 9/11, Psaros said. “At ground zero today you have the museums, you have the reflecting pools, but now you have faith. You have this magnificent structure whose doors will be open to people of all faiths around the world.”

Catholic events marking the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks

All times are Eastern Daylight Time.


Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, archbishop of New York, will lead a 20th anniversary memorial service at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Saturday, September 11, at 1:30 p.m. to remember the 343 Fire Department of New York firefighters killed in the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center on 9/11. Firefighters who succumbed to 9/11-related illnesses will also be remembered.
The annual service, sponsored by the FDNY, will be attended by political dignitaries, department officials, chaplains, firefighters and families. Officials will give remarks, and musical tributes will be performed.

Mass marking the 20th anniversary of 9/11 will be offered at St. Peter’s Church, which is the closest Catholic church to Ground Zero, Saturday, Sept. 11, at 4 p.m. New York Auxiliary Bishop Edmund Whalen, vicar for clergy, will be the principal celebrant.

Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn will celebrate a Mass for the New York City Fire Department on Saturday, September 11, at noon at the Co-Cathedral of St. Joseph. Members of the FDNY’s Battalion 57 in Brooklyn will lead a procession over the Brooklyn Bridge to the Co-Cathedral. The marchers will carry 25 flags, with 24 FDNY flags representing the 23 members of Battalion 57 who were lost at the World Trade Center and the brother of a member of the Battalion who also died that day, along with one American flag.

Memorial Mass on Saturday, September 11, at 12:10 p.m., St. Patrick’s Church in Washington, D.C. The Mass will have a particular focus on members of the Ancient Order of Hibernians who lost their lives that day. Wilton Cardinal Wilton Gregory, Archbishop of Washington, will be the principal celebrant and homilist. View the livestream at

Bishop Michael F. Burbidge of the Diocese of Arlington, Virginia, where the Pentagon is located, will celebrate Mass for the Preservation of Peace and Justice  in Remembrance of the Twentieth Anniversary of September 11, 2001, at the Cathedral of Saint Thomas More in Arlington on September 11 at 9 a.m. Mass will be followed by the rosary.
Bishop Burbidge also will celebrate the 6th Annual Mass Honoring Military & First Responders on September 12, 2021 at St. Leo the Great in Fairfax. The event will be live-streamed on the St. Leo the Great Website.

Bishop Mark L. Bartchak of the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown will celebrate Mass at the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament in Altoona on September 11. This is not far from Shanksville, where Flight 93, the fourth hijacked plane on 9/11, crashed. On Sunday, September 12, a special Blue Mass honoring local police officers, firefighters and emergency medical services will take place at St. John Gualbert Cathedral in nearby Johnstown.

Rich liturgical life

The original St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church was founded in 1916 in a small row house that had been used as a tavern. Immigrants purchased it in 1892 as a community home. For many Greeks coming to America, it would have been among their first stops after being processed at the immigration center on Ellis Island.

As with many old churches in New York, the city grew up around St. Nicholas, and beginning in the 1960s, that growth included the World Trade Center, whose twin skyscrapers dwarfed the church.

“The little church stood in exactly the same location, 155 Cedar Street, witnessing the decades of growth and transformation around the financial centers of Wall Street and Battery Park,” says St. Nicholas’ website. “Even through the 16-acre construction of the original World Trade Center in the 1960s, the little church was an ever-present spiritual jewel, open to all. There are generations of New Yorkers who remember stopping by to light a candle, say a prayer, or just sit quietly. Over the years, the community of Saint Nicholas resisted attempts to sell the property, and by 2001, the church was encircled by a parking lot.”

On the morning of September 11 of that year, everything changed. The little “jewel box” of a church, as some regarded it, was completely destroyed in the collapse of World Trade Center Tower 2 during the terrorist attack. No one was in the church when it was destroyed, but, the church says, “there are reports of Greek Orthodox Christians who escaped the burning towers by running toward the sacred sound of the bell in the campanile that was a visual hallmark” of St. Nicholas.

During the recovery operation that lasted for months after the attack, only a few precious relics of the church were found. Incredibly, in 2010, remains of an 18th-century ship were unearthed on the very location of the former church. 

“The Miracle-working Saint is known throughout the world as the patron saint of those who sail the sea, and many took this as a sign that the resurrection of the church was nigh,” the website says.

Now, on the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, St. Nicholas is already a vivid presence, once again in the shadow of a massive skyscraper — the Freedom Tower. 

Once it opens next year, it will have a “rich liturgical life,” Psaros told AP. “But this beautiful shrine we’re building belongs to New York, it belongs to the U.S., and it belongs to the world.”

9/11Eastern Christian
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