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A Somber Feast Day Observance at Ground Zero

For parishioners of tiny St. Nicholas Church that suffered destruction in the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, the inability to celebrate their Saint’s feast day in the historic landmark in lower Manhattan on Dec. 6 served as a poignant reminder of the Sept. 11 tragedy.

But a commemoration, nevertheless, took place under overcast skies, mild temperatures and a shifting breeze that occasionally brought a slight whiff of death in late afternoon near ground zero.

Archbishop Demetrios and nearly 25 other hierarchs and clergy held a vespers service attended by nearly 50 laypeople – St. Nicholas parishioners, families of victims and various dignitaries – in the restricted area guarded by New York City and Port Authority police officers. The event drew coverage from several news organizations, including the New York Times and BBC Radio.

A crane nearly 40 stories tall stands on the spot once occupied by St. Nicholas Church, making it necessary to hold the service some 50 yards away on an elevated, partially covered wooden platform on the periphery of ground zero. Off to one side was a large memorial panel listing 85 nations from which came nearly a third of the nearly 3,600 victims who died in the attack.

With Archbishop Iakovos standing next to him, and flanked by two rows of clergy standing on either side, Archbishop Demetrios recited the prayers while facing in the direction of the appalling scene of destruction and devastation.

The unending din of activity at the site – high-decibel noise from backhoes and other digging equipment, and a continuous convoy of trucks carting off debris to landfills, at times overpowered the broadcast of the service over the loudspeaker. In the distance, the swarm of workers spread out over various locations of the 16-acre site looked like so many ants on an anthill. Where once stood a six-story high mountain of debris, bulldozers now operate in a 30-foot deep pit.

Upon their arrival at the head of a motorcade from the Archdiocese that included two busloads of the clergy and invited guests, Archbishop Demetrios and Fr. John Romas, St. Nicholas’ pastor, went to the church site to offer a brief prayer and a white bouquet of flowers. They filled a glass bowl with soil at the church site and brought it to the makeshift altar table used in the service.

The crowd stood in stunned reverence, occasionally looking around at the devastation. Some wiped away tears.

“This is a unique experience for all of us to be at this specific site, surrounded by these buildings,” said Archbishop Demetrios. “Now we are in a place of torment and pain, but also of hope.”

He further expressed optimism that “a new world” would be built on the ruins that now dominate the scene, and that the new St. Nicholas Church to be built would be more than a parish church, but also of importance to the entire Greek Orthodox Church and as “a shrine and a place of pilgrimage nationally and internationally.”

His Eminence then introduced Archbishop Iakovos who spoke with great emotion as he reflected on the tragedy. He expressed hope that the area would be “resurrected” from the devastation of its current condition.

At the conclusion of the service, the Archbishop offered participants a commemorative laminated St. Nicholas icon as a memento, as they solemnly returned to their vehicles.