Read more of Kim Lawton's interview with John Couloucoundis, fund-raising chairman at St. Nicholas Church in New York:
My family has been involved in shipping for many years, and we had an office downtown. My father was the first person to come into contact with St. Nicholas Church and he became quite involved through an association we had created called the New York Shipping Corporation Committee, a group of companies and individuals that represented Greek shipping interests in the United States. Because St. Nicholas was downtown, we regularly attended services and sponsored certain services of the church as well.
St. Nicholas is the patron saint of seamen and, at least in Greece, is very, very important to all people involved in shipping. I don't think there's a Greek ship out there that doesn't have an icon of St. Nicholas on the bridge, and there are many people who have sworn to miracles performed by St. Nicholas. People have been saved after shipping accidents or sinkings due to what they feel were the actions of St. Nicholas trying to help them or to save them. St. Nicholas is tied to the lore of shipping and is very important to anyone involved with the sea. That's why we supported the church; it was so important because of that relationship.
The thing that impressed me most about St. Nicholas was the intimacy of the church. It was a beautiful small church and, indeed, despite its size, there were some beautiful icons. There was a lot of history in that church, a lot of people who had brought icons and contributed to make it really a little gem. The thing you sensed in St. Nicholas was this close-knit community, these people who had been involved with the church for generations and supported it. And despite the fact that St. Nicholas was still downtown and most of the families were not downtown -- they were dispersed all over the New York area -- there was still a very strong sense of the church. It wasn't people simply just motioning through being at services. It was people who were very, very closely entwined with the church and who felt very strongly about it. You really sensed that spirituality when you went to the church. It was quite an atmosphere, very different from many other churches regardless of denomination. You sensed that strong community. The church itself was very beautiful, and the close feeling you sensed from people around it really made it something special.
The contrast between the interior of the church and the rest of the downtown area was very stark. Perhaps because the church was small, it made it even starker. There are some beautiful churches downtown, but they're relatively large, almost cathedral-like. St. Nicholas was this quiet gem. You would walk in, and it was so different from anything around it. You really couldn't hear much of anything going on outside. For whatever reason, it was very well insulated. The contrast was very, very stark. For people who needed to meditate or think or just gain a little bit of quiet time, it was a perfect place to go. Because it was such a spiritual place, regardless of denomination, regardless of religion, people felt something when they went in there. It was really quite different.
[After 9/11] one of the parishioners, Peter Drakoulias, managed to snap a shot of what was left, and the devastation was just unbelievable. There was absolutely nothing left of the church. It was buried under 30 feet of rubble. It was very, very painful. The whole experience was very painful, but especially so, knowing we had lost that church. No one was injured, no one was killed. But it was so stark, the change, the before and the after, that it was very, very disturbing. There was really almost nothing left. There were a few things from the altar. There was one torn icon that we managed to find, a broken cross that we were able to find. But the destruction was so complete, it was amazing that we found anything at all. We only found seven or eight artifacts out of this church which had hundreds of artifacts inside and icons and all sorts of things. The destruction was complete. It was unbelievable how complete it was.
Even finding the church was a major task. It ended up being found only through tracing a telephone wire. People familiar with the church were able to pull at the wire and find out that this is the corner of the church and then realized this is where the church is. That's how complete the destruction was and how much had fallen on top of the church. If it hadn't been for a few signs like wires or cables, we never would have even found the church. That's how bad it was.
Within about two weeks of the destruction of the church, the parish had already organized, having meetings and trying to figure out how to go forward. At the first meeting, there must have been close to 100 people trying to figure out how are we going to proceed? How are we going to move forward? Where are we going to hold services? How are we going to continue the church? How are we going to keep this parish together, and what do we need to do to start rebuilding or where do we go to start rebuilding? The response was almost immediate on many, many different fronts, even in terms of contributions and people offering to help. We received literally hundreds of phone calls in the first few weeks from people willing to donate not only money but time, materials -- bell makers calling and saying, "We're going to make your new bells," all sorts of things of that nature, which we keep on file for obvious reasons, because we will rebuild, and we will need those things. The response was amazing. It was across the board. Regardless of denomination or religious affiliation, people wanted to help.
What does St. Nicholas as a center represent? The way we look at it, we have a responsibility. God is God, whether one is Greek Orthodox, whether one is Catholic, whether one is Jewish or Muslim. We all believe in one God, so immediately we all focus on spirituality, on how a holy place was destroyed. People were very much touched by what happened to that church and realized it is a spiritual place. What people want -- and I sense it from our own parish, but even people who have contributed money, whether it's from Italy or from Qatar or from Boston or from anywhere in the world -- is to see a place rebuilt that is spiritual, that will allow people to come in and contemplate, memorialize, and just remember. Our mission is to accomplish that. Certainly we're an Orthodox parish, but I think our goal is to have this church open to anyone who wants to come in and spend some time and reflect, just like it was before it was destroyed. There were many, many people from the Wall Street area who had no affiliation with the church, who were not necessarily Christian, but they understand the spirituality of the place. I think we have an even stronger mission to do that in the future. People sense that. They really want to see this place rebuilt because it is important. It's a direct victim of what happened on 9/11. So we resurrect it. It's a resurrection in a greater sense than resurrecting a building. It's really resurrecting a community that has given to the Wall Street area for many, many years.
St. Nicholas will be a holy place, and it will be a spiritual place. We want to focus on the community and open our doors to the world. There's a lot of emphasis on rebuilding the downtown area for commercial reasons. Of course it's very, very important to the economic well-being of the city and to revitalizing downtown. But at the end of the day, it's also a very painful place for many people, not only the people who lost loved ones on 9/11. It stretched far beyond that. People all over the world have been touched by what happened on 9/11, people with no direct relationship to anyone lost on that day. When they come and visit this site, they'll be pressed by a variety of different pressures. There will be the commercial. They will see the Freedom Tower, a museum, the memorial space. But we'd like for them to spend some time in a spiritual place where they can really sit down and think and contemplate about what happened. It's hopefully a connection to God for them. That's really the most important thing. The other thing we'd like to do is try to bring people together from all over the world and be a small focal point. Regardless of your religion or your religious belief or, as the archbishop said, if you don't even believe in God at all -- it's irrelevant. It's a place where we can all come together and think about what happened and maybe spend a little bit of time thinking about how to avoid such a thing in the future. If the church can be a lightning rod for that and a focal point for that, it would really, really be wonderful and would accomplish our goals. We now realize that we have a much bigger responsibility than being a parish church. We're very much aware of that.