Just after Sept. 11, 2001, Orthodox priest Mark Arey walked into a tent at Ground Zero and saw an evidence bag holding a familiar paper icon. "That belongs to St. Nicholas Church," he told the police officer. "This is evidence at a crime site," the officer countered. Arey gestured to the rubble burying St. Nicholas Church, and he pleaded again. The icon now rests at the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese chapel in New York City, next to a small table that holds the remains of St. Nicholas Church: two icons and a torn tapestry, five twisted candles, and two Bibles with charred pages.
The church crumpled beneath debris from the South Tower of the World Trade Center on 9/11, and as the nation debates the propriety of building a mosque two blocks away from Ground Zero, the plight of St. Nicholas Church is gaining attention as well. Nine years after politicians vowed to rebuild the only church destroyed on 9/11, St. Nicholas has gone from a pile of rubble to a hole in the ground.
Today a construction fence conceals the church's original site. A block away, another fence hides 130 Liberty Street, where the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey promised St. Nicholas could rebuild. St. Nicholas would cede its original deed and its air space in exchange for $40 million to rebuild the church and the infrastructure beneath it.
But while the church and the Port Authority were still finalizing the terms of the agreement in 2008, negotiations broke down. In a statement to WORLD, the Port Authority blamed the church for wanting to approve designs and for seeking public commitments with the potential for another $20 million of public money. But the archdiocese said the church just wanted to know more clearly how it fit into the rebuilding plan, and money is not the obstacle. Days after 9/11, the archdiocese got an unexpected $250,000 donation from the mayor of Bari, Italy, where St. Nicholas himself is buried. The archdiocese has amassed a total of $4.5 million without even asking for money. "Keep your money," Arey told the Port Authority. "We just want to rebuild our church."
The church last heard from the Port Authority in March 2009, when officials said, "Our lawyers will call you." The church is still waiting.
Arey said he looked at the pictures of those protesting the Ground Zero mosque and saw an anger that didn't reflect the best that Christianity, Judaism, and Islam have to offer. Maybe, Arey said, a new St. Nicholas Church could provide a place that brings people together. "This little church was there," he said. "It needs to be rebuilt."