Two Greek Orthodox Monks from the isolated monastic community of Mt. Athos were sent to New York City to decorate the rebuilt St Nicholas Shrine, the only church to be demolished in the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
After an extraordinarily difficult period in which it sometimes seemed that the church would not be rebuilt, the Shrine is set to open its doors in the summer of 2022.
Now that construction on the church is nearly completed, monks Loukas and Pachomios from the Xenophontos Monastery in Mt. Athos have been sent to New York City to decorate the interior of the shrine with stunning paintings depicting scenes from the Bible.
Rebuilding the Church
Archbishop of America Elpidophoros made it a priority of his administration to root out the problems which had nagged the rebuilding efforts and he, along with former New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, officiated at the start of its reconstruction in August of 2020.
“The start of construction on the new St. Nicholas Church echoes the overarching message of these challenging times: We are going to build back the way…, and it will be better and stronger with more solidarity and more faith and more spirit of community than ever before,” former Governor Cuomo stated triumphantly.
“This St. Nicholas is going to be more splendid and more inviting than the St. Nicholas that was here before. We have gone through difficult times together, but we rise from the ashes and we rise stronger than ever before. That’s what this St. Nicholas will stand for. It is a powerful message to all New Yorkers and all Americans,” the governor added.
In extremely pointed remarks, Elpidophoros also reminded those present of the reconversion of the great cathedral of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul into a mosque. “The greatest church ever in the history of the world,” he said, “was taken from us…in an act of domination and chauvinism.”
Seemingly tying that recent takeover to the events of twenty years ago, in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Archbishop Elpidophoros said of the destruction of that day, which resulted in the compete obliteration of the previous Shrine, “We shall not let this stand,” he said, adding that “We are going to open this Shrine as a sign of love, not hate.”
He declared that the new, rebuilt Shrine will represent “an ideal that exists in this America, a nation where no one is excluded but all are embraced.”
Monks from Mt. Athos decorate St. Nicholas Shrine
The master iconographer of Mt. Athos, Father Loukas, from the Holy Mountain’s Xenophontos Monastery, is in charge of the daunting task of painting, or “writing,” the new iconography for St. Nicholas.
Father Loukas is a world-renowned painter of holy icons and murals. Born in Larisa, Loukas studied mathematics but was called to the monastic life and to painting.
Using the ancient method of egg tempera, he told Scott Pelley from 60 Minutes in a report aired on April 12, 2020, that “God has called me to do this work to communicate the spirit of Mount Athos to the people,” adding that this project represented the most important work of his entire life.
In the report, Pelley called the monastery “a fortress against time, where art is created to heal a nation’s wounds.”
In the summer of 2019, Father Lukas left his cell on Mt. Athos to look at the partially rebuilt St. Nicholas Shrine for himself, to get a feel for the kind of icons and other artwork which will be needed to decorate and give life to this most special of all Manhattan churches, the one which will, upon its completion, mark the triumph over the death and destruction of that day, nearly twenty years ago.
In Pelley’s words, the icon painter had to go himself in order to “take the measure of God’s empty gallery.”
St. Nicholas’ Shrine is located on the site of the original church, at the foot of One World Trade Center. The longtime caretaker of the church, Bill Terazonis, explained to Pelley in the report that he felt the building pulsate from the shock wave caused by the attack. When he was able to make his way outside, he found human remains in the front seat of his car, parked just outside the church. He related to Pelley that “I lost part of me that day.”
Among the 56 icons which will find their new home at the Shrine will of course be one representing St. Nicholas himself, the patron saint not only of children but of seafarers as well. Father Lukas showed Pelley one of the new icons he wrote, representing St. Nicholas saving a crew of shipwrecked sailors from the water, measuring at least 4 X 7 feet, which will be featured at the St. Nicholas Shrine.
Father Lukas has, however, added a haunting image to that typical scene of St. Nicholas’ works. Superimposed on the blue waters at the bottom of the painting is a scene of Manhattan under attack, with the Statue of Liberty facing the burning towers.
Father Lukas told Pelley “I personally want this church, through the iconography to open up a new horizon for people, that they come away with hope. If this happens, the icons will have fulfilled their purpose.”