Today's Topic



Tale of Two Churches,
One City

Natalia J. Garland

Print Version

The mosaic of New York City is brightly colored by many different houses of worship--the freedom of religion in action. There are two churches that are, or were, within close walking distance of the World Trade Center. One is an Episcopal church, St. Paul's Chapel, located at Broadway and Fulton Streets. The other was the St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, tucked away behind the Twin Towers on Cedar Street, and completely destroyed in the September 11th attack.

St. Paul's chapel is a popular tourist attraction and easy to reach by bus. I have often walked by it on Saturdays, after browsing J&R Computer World and then heading over to the underground shopping mall at the World Trade Center.

St. Paul's is on New York's historical map. It was dedicated in 1766. It is the oldest church, and the oldest public building still in use in Manhattan. George Washington worshipped here. He attended St. Paul's on his Inauguration Day in 1789. At that time, New York City was our nation's capital. Despite its proximity to the World Trade Center, St. Paul's remained intact after the September 11th attack. In fact, it was turned into a place of respite and medical care for the weary firefighters and other rescue workers.

St. Nicholas Church, by contrast, was a tiny church that opened only on Sundays for services and on Wednesdays for private prayer. Employees from the local businesses could get away from their hectic workday and light a candle in the church. St. Nicholas was founded in 1916. In the olden days, the church served Greek and Syrian immigrants. Their descendants, though no longer living nearby, continued to attend St. Nicholas because they felt a connection to Hellenic heritage there. Over the years, the faithful have steadfastly refused to sell the church even though real estate values in Manhattan greatly increased.

Along with the destruction of St. Nicholas Church, the relics of three saints have gone missing: St. Nicholas, St. Katherine, and St. Savvas. Reverend John Romas has notified rescue searchers, including workers at the Staten Island landfill, to look for the box containing these relics. They have yet to be found. The reverend's wife, Lorraine Romas, believes that if the relics are not found, "maybe it's because they wanted to stay there with everybody else."

Mrs. Romas' reaction contains a vivid sense of logic. Imagine the relics buried deep within the landfill (i.e., garbage dump), and the holiness they would lend to this very unpleasant area which itself has been the bane of Staten Islanders for many years. How fitting that the saints should humble themselves and reside at this macabre destination with those who perished so horribly. How comforting to the victims' families. How victorious over terrorist intentions.

With or without the relics, there are plans to rebuild St. Nicholas Church. Fundraising has already begun. The city of Bari, Italy, where St. Nicholas is the patron saint, has donated money. The impact of and the responses to the September 11th attack have reached far beyond the New York mosaic. It has brought out the goodness in many people from many places. The recovery process has transformed into a resurrection of spirituality and a renewal of cultural ideals.

Both churches, St. Paul's and St. Nicholas, are unique symbols of American democracy at its best. They are models of the freedom to worship while living in tolerance of those who are different. St. Patrick has long been the patron saint of New York City. I think it would be prudent and gracious if New York had a committee of patron saints, starting with: St. Patrick, St. Paul, St. Nicholas, St. Katherine, and St. Savvas. With the passing of the old world, that is, the world that existed before September 11th, perhaps the concept of patron saints should be taken more literally and personally. (Written 12/17/01: bibliography available.)

Until we meet again..............stay sane.

Find More Topics in the Table of Contents

Return to Homepage


Copyright 2001 Natalia J. Garland