Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Church left out of 9/11 renewal

Most people haven't even hear about this. Who could care about the Christians who want to rebuild their church, when we have other pressing deadlines? Besides, did you hear about the Muslims and their mosque?

By Martha T. Moore, USA TODAY

NEW YORK — Towers are rising again at the site of the World Trade Center, a place of devastation turned into a construction hub. But the cross-topped belfry of St. Nicholas Church isn't among them.

Nine years after it was destroyed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the little Greek Orthodox church that stood across the street from the twin towers is farther away than ever from being rebuilt.

Slow progress toward a new home halted last year when the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which controls the Ground Zero site, broke off discussions with the church over where and how a new church would be built.

FAITH & REASON: Conversation about religion, spirituality & ethics

On Sunday, the eve of St. Nicholas Day, 70 families of the congregation gathered near the site to light candles and pray for a way to rebuild their spiritual home amid the office towers and memorial plaza taking shape. "It's not a political statement. This is our place, and we belong there," says Mark Arey, a priest and director of interfaith relations for the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.

Before the Port Authority pulled the plug in March 2009, the agency and the church had spent several years working on a plan for the church to be rebuilt a block from its original location. Each side says the other refused to come to terms. The Port Authority says the church wanted too much say in the design of a vehicle screening center underneath the new building. The church says the agency wouldn't finalize the swap of its original property for the new site.

"After nine months of negotiations in which the demands of the Orthodox Church continued to increase over and above what we originally agreed to, we had to make a practical decision," says John Kelly, a Port Authority spokesman.

To work on the vehicle screening center, the Port Authority has begun ripping up the 1,200-square-foot plot where the old church stood, though the agency has not bought the rights from the church to do so.

'Back to the table'

The stalemate is emblematic of the complexity of plans for rebuilding Ground Zero and shows the intense pressure to move forward on a project that has taken years longer than anticipated.

The Port Authority says it sent a letter last month to the church, seeking to resume discussions to set a value on the church's land.

"We really want to go back to the table with the Port Authority ... because I just don't think it's reasonable that the only house of worship destroyed on 9/11 would not be rebuilt," Arey says.

When the twin towers were standing, they dwarfed little St. Nicholas. Founded in 1916, the church's home was a whitewashed 19th-century building that had once been a tavern. It sat across the street from the south tower of the Trade Center. It had a tiny congregation and was open only on Sundays and Wednesdays, when workers from the financial district sometimes stopped to light a candle or sit in peace.

In the years after it was destroyed, a plan emerged for St. Nicholas to be rebuilt a block east of its original site in a park the Port Authority is building on top of its underground vehicle screening center, through which all traffic into the Trade Center complex will have to pass.

In a preliminary deal announced in the summer of 2008, the Port Authority said it would cover the $40 million cost of the platform on which the church would be built and contribute $20 million to the cost of the church, in exchange for the church's original lot. In March 2009, the Port Authority cut off talks. The church will have to rebuild on its original site, the agency says, when the vehicle center is finished in 2013.

The church says that's impossible, partly because the construction of the underground center is raising the church's site by 30 feet. "They're saying, 'Go back to your old space,' knowing full well that without years of planning, it's not feasible," says John Couloucoundis, president of the St. Nicholas congregation.

In August, the church got a flurry of attention during the controversy over a proposal to build an Islamic center near the Trade Center site. When New York Gov. David Paterson, a Democrat, offered to help the developer find a site farther away, elected officials such as state Sen. Dean Skelos, a Republican, asked why there was no equivalent effort to help St. Nicholas.

An odyssey

The church has raised "a couple million" for a new building, though Arey says it has not launched a fundraising campaign. "It's hard to fundraise for something you don't have a design for."

While worshiping at a Greek Orthodox cathedral in Brooklyn, the members continue to pay their dues, have meetings and gather annually at Ground Zero to celebrate St. Nicholas' feast day.

The travails of St. Nicholas are — fittingly for a Greek church — an "odyssey," Couloucoundis says. "I hope, just like the original Odyssey, we end up where we're supposed to."

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