Nearly a thousand members of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, which raised $38 million to build a national shrine at Ground Zero, watched as their archbishop blessed the cornerstones of the new church, which will be a place of solace and prayer to remember those killed on Sept. 11, 2001.
Established as a congregation in 1916, the church was converted a few years later from a tavern by the city's first large influx of Greek immigrants. The Greek Orthodox Church of St. Nicholas was a small cement building that stood across Liberty Street in the shadows of the World Trade Center, surrounded by a parking lot on three sides, until it was destroyed when the south tower collapsed on it after the terrorist attacks.
Saturday's religious ground blessing ceremony was held a block from where the Liberty Street church once stood.
"We remember those first few days after 9/11," Archbishop Demetrios, primate of the Greek Orthodox Church in America, said. "In this very place there was heavy piles of ruins, pulverized remains of the innocent victims. . . . I remember breathing in a very heavy, saturated air filled with dust, stone, iron and the tiny particles of human remains. . . . We just prayed and said this church should be rebuilt."
But former Gov. George Pataki said that goal "was easier said than to do." He spoke at the ground blessing for what will be the Saint Nicholas National Shrine at the World Trade Center. He reminded the audience that during the rebuilding of Ground Zero, the archdiocese had to sue the Port Authority, which wanted to nix plans to rebuild the tiny church.
"Today, under a reflecting sun, we see that the rock of this church is unshakable. This church is firm," Pataki said.
Donors for the new church were handed cornerstones blessed by Demetrios, who was flanked by a procession of priests from Boston, Denver, Atlanta, Detroit, Pittsburgh, San Francisco and New Jersey.
Family members who lost loved ones collected water from the National September 11 Memorial twin reflecting pools. The water was blessed and sprinkled onto the stones, which will be part of the new shrine.
"My brother used to light candles at St. Nicholas and go there to find peace," said Anthoula Katsimatides, whose brother John Katsimatides, 31, was killed in the south tower offices of Cantor Fitzgerald. "Now, millions can stop and pray at this new church. It will be beautiful and it will give hope."
Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, who designed the new shrine, used the artistic Byzantine silhouette of the Virgin Mary with child Jesus as the church's outline structure. "It is the point where the church originates," he said after the ceremony.
The illuminated white dome shrine will glow at night and sit across from Calatrava's wing span design at the 9/11 Memorial. He said both designs share the themes of "reconciliation."
Construction is expected to begin soon with completion in 24 months.