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Thursday, November 15, 2001

Diaspora

Saint Nicholas: The Lost Chapel of the Financial District


When the World Trade Center towers fell on September 11, Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church was totally buried by the debris. The destruction of this tiny parish has received sustained coverage in the world press. And while Saint Nicholas is said to be one of the very first churches established in New York City, only scattered bits of information about its history and character have been published. Yet such is the spirit of the Saint Nicholas community that monies are now being raised to rebuild the parish once again. In addition the publication of the 85th commemorative volume of the church is also moving forward without delay. With Paris C. Dimoleon’s exhaustive and detailed history of the Saint Nicholas parish in this forthcoming volume, we will soon have the full, documented history of this community. All that will be attempted here is the briefest of surveys.

Saint Nicholas was founded on October 9, 1916, but did not receive its official charter until August 8, 1917. Baptismal records of 1915 and 1916 suggest the church was operating as a self-aware community for sometime before the formal issuance of a charter. In 1945, a fire destroyed many church records, so exact historical details on the earliest years of the parish were lacking even before September 11.

Services for the Saint Nicholas community were first held in two rented spaces along Greenwich Street, the second of these two locations being at 187 Greenwich Street. In 1919, Saint Nicholas Church moved to a building at 155 Cedar Street, which the community purchased for $25,000 on October 11, 1922. The structure was far from distinguished. Constructed in 1832, the building was first a private residence and then saw conversion into the Cedar House Bar. Aside from its business as a tavern, the Cedar House also rented out rooms.

Given the converted nature of the church building, conflicting accounts persist in terms of its height and precise physical dimensions. The church structure was a four-story building that was not exactly a rectangle. The structure measured only 22 feet wide in front, 20 feet 11 inches wide in the rear, 56 feet in length on one side, and 52 feet on the other. The building rose to a height of only 35 feet. One entered the church on the first floor, while the second floor was the balcony. The third floor was the hall and the fourth floor was composed of offices, restrooms, and the kitchen. The building’s exterior surface was whitewashed with a sign indicating to the world at large that the structure was indeed a church.

The tiny church was quite literally in the middle of a parking lot bounded as it was on three sides by asphalt. This seems to be the reason for the discrepancy, one of many by the way, in the general press. Depending on how one reckons the distance between the church building (the front door of which was on Cedar Street) and the asphalt parking lot behind it (that ran north to Liberty Street), Saint Nicholas was either within 250 feet of Ground Zero or some 1,000 feet.

The Saint Nicholas parish has been described in the world press as New York City’s third oldest Greek Orthodox place of worship. There is considerable lack of agreement on this point. To begin with, for those not from New York City, it is important to stress that the city is divided into five boroughs – the Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens, and Staten Island. According to Paris C. Dimoleon’s research, the first four Greek Orthodox churches founded in New York City were Holy Trinity in 1892, Evangelismos in 1894, Saints Constantine and Helen’s parish in Brooklyn in 1913, and Saint Nicholas in lower Manhattan in 1916. While always recognized as one of the earliest parishes to be established in New York City, Saint Nicholas has nevertheless never been included in any published history of Greeks in the United States.

In 1995, the Greek American Documentation Project conducted a broad-based survey of archival records by the New York City Greek community at large. Fortunately, Saint Nicholas was included in that field study. Yet some 6.1 linear feet of original parish records and documents – including six books of liturgical records that reported on the history of the parish through general correspondence, newspaper clippings dating back to 1919, wedding and baptismal documents, a small collection of photographs, and papers related to the parish constitution (dating from 1931 as well as 1951) – were all lost in the September 11 catastrophe.

According to nearly every published account, among Saint Nicholas’s icons were an unspecified number of silver encased ones that were gifts from Nicholas II, last czar of Russia. No such icons were to be found in Saint Nicholas at 155 Cedar Street. It seems that writers in the past have confused the Cedar Street church with the Russian Orthodox Cathedral of Saint Nicholas located at 97th Street, east of Fifth Avenue. At the same time, it is also the case that past writers have identified this parish as a Greek church established in 1895. The basis for this confusion seems to be a misreading or understanding of newspaper accounts.

It is quite true that Archbishop Meletios Metaxakis celebrated services at the 97th Street church as Ecumenical Patriarch-elect. In reading further in that account, the parish is further identified as a Russian church and that “the audience, in which men predominate, was divided about equally between Greeks and Russians” (New York Times 20 December 1921). As the late Archimandrite Alexander Doumouras’s research documents, “it is difficult, at this point (in time), to determine exactly what the relationship was, if any, between the Greek people in New York City and the clergy of the Russian Mission before 1900.”

By no later than the 1880s, the lower Manhattan district in which Saint Nicholas was located was known as the Syrian Quarter. This informal neighborhood name was due to the overwhelming numbers of Syrians, Lebanese, Armenians, and Middle Eastern peoples in general. Scattered among the rest were also Greeks, Italians, and even a sprinkling of Turks. Roughly occupying the area bounded by Washington Street from Battery Park to Rector Street, the Syrian Quarter was an area composed of residences and a place where locals worked in the produce business and along the thriving waterfront. Commerce in this district included coffeehouses, tobacco and confectionery shops, and even stores that sold baklava. The majority of Greek immigrants who first established Saint Nicholas had no knowledge of English and lived reportedly eight to ten to a room to save enough money to help purchase the Cedar Street building. In the 1957 film, Dark Odyssey, aside from the Greek American story-line, one can see not only the neighborhoods of lower Manhattan (then called generally “downtown”), but even the wooden piers of the docks that even then were still evident along the shoreline. The Wall Street Racquet Club and the Wall Street Heliport now dominate places that were once working waterfront docks.

Since the 1920s, the Saint Nicholas congregation has made a special point of celebrating Epiphany. Here is how the New York Times concisely described the 1939 celebration, “[P]erhaps the most colorful ceremony will be that of Bishop Arsenios, who will lead worshipers at noon from Saint Nicholas Church on Cedar Street near Washington Street to the Battery. He will enter a barge or other craft with dignitaries for the ceremony of casting a crucifix on the water. White doves will be released. Young men will plunge into the bay in the ancient custom of retrieving the cross” (January 22, page 12). Battery Park, which is just south and west of the church, is only a one-mile round-trip. An additional aspect to this processional, not mentioned in the previous account, is that on the return trip, the officiating clergy would stop at Greek-owned homes and businesses along this route to offer a blessing.

As this newspaper account brings to the fore, among the many historical points that see disagreement in the press concerning Saint Nicholas Church is the issue of the parish’s status as an Old Calendar church. The Paliomeroloyites (adherents to the “old calendar”) were opposed to the Julian calendar being replaced by the Gregorian one. Since Epiphany is on January 6 then, the 1939 observation on the 19th does pose some problems. That being said, the current parish president, James Maniatis, states plainly that in 1993 the parish officially began to follow the Gregorian calendar.

In 1972, minor renovations to Saint Nicholas took place. At this time, reinforcing the floor was necessary because the high tide of the Hudson River would often cause flooding. In late 1989, major renovations were initiated in earnest. The walls were stripped to the wood, more reinforcing was done, and marble was added to the floors, along with new heating and air conditioning equipment.

Forty to 50 parishioners were in attendance on any given Sunday, with an estimated total of 90 congregants drawn from Astoria, Brooklyn, New Jersey, Upper Westchester, and Washington Heights. It must be immediately stressed that the physical separation of Saint Nicholas Church from its priest and parishioners is not unique in Greek American historical experience. The growth of suburbs after the Second World War, the overall aging of the general population, and the better-than-average economic status of Greeks in North America have all directly affected parish life. Churches such as Saint Basil in Chicago, the Assumption in Price, Utah, or the Annunciation cathedral in Detroit, where lively communities all thrive, do so without the benefit of neighboring priests or parishioners. And these are not the only churches facing this issue. The presence of a lone Greek Orthodox Church, be it in a decidedly rural area or in a core-urban location, is as yet an unstudied daily social reality of Greek worship in North America.

The tragedy of the Saint Nicholas parish is emblematic of a more widely shared problem of Hellenism in America. No public historical documents are available on this church. Certainly, in the rebuilding process that the parishioners of Saint Nicholas are now undertaking, we can only wish them the very best. But we are forced to ask the question of what has Greek America done to preserve its own historical record for future generations? No one will be Greek for us. The time to assemble such a historical legacy on quite literally every church and every collectivity of Greeks in North America is now.

Steve Frangos lives and writes in Round Lake, Illinois.
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