To be perfectly honest, this is a story that tears my heart out.
I have been reporting and writing about the destruction of the St. Nicholas Orthodox Church in lower Manhattan ever since Sept. 12, 2001. This was, of course, the tiny sanctuary crushed by the fall of the south tower of the World Trade Center.
I have also written columns about the long and complicated efforts by Orthodox officials to obtain a site near ground zero so that a new St. Nicholas could be built as a memorial and sanctuary. When I am in Manhattan, l live and teach nearby and pass the new construction site almost every day. My favorite pub is 50 paces away.
Now there is this, a recent headline from The New York Post: "How a church destroyed on 9/11 became mired in controversy." The overture states the basic facts:
St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church was to be a “beacon of hope” at the World Trade Center site, glowing at night as a symbol to the faithful and those seeking solace on hallowed ground.
Thousands of visitors were to walk through the church doors on Liberty Street to worship, light a candle or just sit quietly in a nondenominational meditation room overlooking one of the 9/11 Memorial’s reflecting pools.
Now the church is a half-built eyesore, and when those doors will open is uncertain. The project has been stalled for five months and become a quagmire of accusations and millions of dollars in missing donations and cost overruns. What was to be the proud symbol of the Greek Orthodox Church in America, and the only house of worship tending to the masses at Ground Zero, is now mired in controversy. ...
GetReligion readers will not be surprised to know that the main thing missing from this long and detailed report is (wait for it) religion. And here is the big irony in this story: If the Post team had probed the religious elements of this story if would have been even more painful to read, especially for the Orthodox.
This is a story with lots of buttons to push -- from financial scandals to overly ambitious architecture, from personal tragedies to political chess matches (global, national and in New York City). And through it all there are, literally, the Byzantine affairs of Greek Orthodox life in America.
However, this isn't just a Greek Orthodox story -- even though it's impossible to dig into this without focusing on powerful Greek officials and donors. Orthodox Christian believers around the world -- not just Greeks -- have become involved in the efforts to rebuild this very symbolic sanctuary at this very symbolic location.
Also, this was -- is? -- going to be a real church for a real Orthodox parish, not just a stunning interfaith tourism destination with a label-free "meditation" room. You see, there are people in New York City who lost their church on 9/11 and now there is a good chance that they have lost it, once again. Where are their voices in this?
But here is my main problem. This story is packed with information about the legal and financial woes currently being experienced by the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. That's essential reporting, to say the least. For example:
The US Attorney’s Office in Manhattan is reportedly probing the project’s finances and those of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. The state attorney general is also investigating, according to The National Herald, a newspaper covering the Greek community.
The cash-starved archdiocese is ready to put its Upper East Side headquarters in hock and is reportedly seeking a loan from Alma Bank of $7.5 million to $10 million to pay its debts.
What is going on here, at the religious and spiritual level? Is the archdiocese growing or shrinking? How are its churches doing? Does the archdiocese have life? Growing churches? Lots of priests who are winning converts? Is the church inspiring faith among its young people?
What do these questions have to do with this story? Would the national church be in a state of crisis -- financial and ethical -- if this communion was on solid ground, in terms of church growth and life?
Also, what do other Orthodox leaders think of this crisis? Why talk to the Greeks, alone, and focus all the hard questions -- it would appear -- on money, hubris and church politics? And that's that?
Yes, are there religion ghosts in this major religion-news story?
I am not saying that the political intrigue doesn't matter. I mean, read this:
In October 2014, 2,000 people attended a “ground blessing” for what was declared the St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church and National Shrine, which was to be completed by the end of 2016.
In a bold, and expensive, move, the Archdiocese hired Spanish “starchitect” Calatrava to design its new cathedral. Calatrava was behind the Oculus, the winged building just north of the church that is the trade-center transit hub, a taxpayer-funded project where costs soared from $2 billion to $4 billion.
Not everyone at the archdiocese was happy with the choice.
“Were you not told, before Mr. Calatrava was chosen, that if you choose him as the design architect, the budget would surely be at least double what was originally estimated?” Jerry Dimitriou, a former executive director of the archdiocese, wrote to the archbishop in January 2018.
Calatrava’s design called for a dome to be surrounded by four pillars. The church would use the same Greek marble mined for the Parthenon and a lighting system that would produce an evening glow.
Like I said, this is a big, fat, Greek story. No doubt about it.
But there is more to this tragedy than that. All journalists have to do to glimpse the larger story is start calling people at growing, thriving, Greek Orthodox churches across America (there are some!) and ask spiritual questions about their archdiocese. Then call leaders in other Orthodox flocks and do the same.
At that point, the story will get even bigger, and more complex and, yes, in some ways more tragic. There may also be a glimmer of hope, far from the painful ecclesiastical puzzle in New York City.
FIRST IMAGE: The original St. Nicholas Orthodox Church.