I think about 9/11 every day, during my weeks in New York City teaching at The King's College in lower Manhattan.
There's a logical reason. When in New York, I live in a residence hotel next to ground zero. Each morning I walk around the edge of the park containing the footprints of the World Trade Center towers. That includes St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, which is being rebuilt close to its original location 250 feet from the corner of the south tower.
At night, I often go a block or two out of my way to check out the construction. I started writing about the fate of this church -- the only house of worship destroyed on 9/11 -- two weeks after the towers fell. As an Orthodox Christian, I find one detail of the church's destruction especially haunting.
Orthodox believers want to search in the two-story mound of debris for the remains of three loved ones who died long ago -- the relics of St. Nicholas, St. Katherine and St. Sava. Small pieces of their skeletons were kept in a gold-plated box marked with an image of Christ. This ossuary was stored in a 700-pound, fireproof safe.
"We do not think it could have burned. But perhaps it was crushed," said Father [John] Romas. "Who knows? All we can do is wait and pray."
The safe was never found (click here for a 2014 update). How do you burn cast iron?
I was glad to pick up my newspaper here in Oak Ridge, Tenn., and see that the Associated Press, in its advance story for this 9/11 anniversary, focused on the construction of the new St. Nicholas National Shrine at the World Trade Center. It's a pretty solid story, yet it contains one or two details that need clarification.
In one case, I am sure the Orthodox would appreciate a correction. Will the new shrine have towers like the current Hagia Sophia? Here is the overture:
NEW YORK -- A Greek Orthodox church taking shape next to the World Trade Center memorial plaza will glow at night like a marble beacon when it opens sometime next year. It also will mark another step in the long rebuilding of New York’s ground zero.
The St. Nicholas National Shrine, designed by renowned architect Santiago Calatrava, will replace a tiny church that was crushed by the trade center’s south tower on Sept. 11, 2001. The new church will give Greek Orthodox believers a place to worship while also welcoming visitors of any faith who want to reflect on the lives lost in the terrorist attacks.
“It is such a significant church because of what happened here,” said Jerry Dimitriou, executive director of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, which oversees 540 parishes and approximately 1.5 million Greek Orthodox faithful across the United States. He said people may want to stop and pray after they’ve been to the National Sept. 11 Memorial and Museum, a few paces away. “We will give them a place to come and sit, and sit inside of a church,” Dimitriou said.
Now, the statement that the church will give "Greek Orthodox believers a place to worship" is interesting, when contrasted with the Dimitriou words about visitors to the larger memorial and museum being able to "sit inside a church."
The key is that the shrine's sanctuary will be consecrated for Orthodox worship. I am sure the sanctuary will be open for mid-day prayer services, vespers, etc. However, will working-week visitors still be allowed to come into the main church and light prayer candles, as many World Trade Center workers used to do?
I ask that question because the AP story also notes -- accurately -- that the shrine will have a second space for visitors, separate from the liturgical space centering on the altar and its iconostasis. See this passage in the AP story:
A temporary icon of Christ gazes down at the sanctuary under construction now. It will be replaced by a permanent icon before the sanctuary starts hosting Orthodox services. Meanwhile, work has started on second-floor meditation and reflection spaces that will be open to all.
What's the point? While the Orthodox (as with the Church of Rome) practice "closed Communion," with only active Orthodox believers receiving Communion in Divine Liturgy rites, our services are open to all. Readers might be confused about why there is a second space for "meditation and reflection" by visitors who are not there during formal worship services.
So the question to ask: Will there be open prayer rites at noon on business days?
Now, the main problem I had with this story is found in this passage:
... The new St. Nicholas was inspired by two Byzantine shrines in Istanbul, the Hagia Sophia and the Church of the Holy Savior in Chora. Like those structures built in the fifth and sixth centuries, St. Nicholas will feature a central dome flanked by towers. ...
While the towers at the church’s corners will look like solid stone from the outside, the dome and sides will be covered with thin layers of sandwiched marble and glass that will be lighted from the inside at night. “You’ll see that the dome is glowing and the front is glowing,” Dimitriou said. The dome area will all be illuminated like a candle.”
Now, I have been to Chora, with its amazing walls of recovered iconography, and also the massive Hagia Sophia sanctuary (which is currently the subject of tense debates about its future). If you look at Hagia Sophia today, you certainly see towers.
At Chora, there is currently only one tower, and people often attempt to minimize its presence in photographs. Click here for a collection of images.
These towers, you see, are actually minarets added when these churches were converted into mosques after the fall of Constantinople to Islamic armies. Minarets are a feature of Islamic architecture -- towers used by chanters when calling the faithful to prayers.
Yes, it's easy to see that the design of the new St. Nicholas Shrine includes nods to Hagia Sophia and Chora.
But minarets? No.
Why would an Orthodox church design include towers flanking the dome, higher than the cross on the top of the sanctary? There are no towers in images of the plans for the rebuilt church.
Did the reporter see images of Chora and Hagia Sophia and then misunderstand references (thinking out loud here) to the new St. Nicholas being surrounded by towers -- as in the buildings of lower Manhattan?
At the very least there needs to be a clarification, or two, in this story. In the case of the "towers at the church’s corners," I believe that there needs to be a correction.
FIRST IMAGE: A wintry picture of the St. Nicholas construction site, viewed from my window.