By Julie Shapiro
LOWER MANHATTAN — The congregants of St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church returned to Ground Zero Sunday to pray at the site of their former home.
The small church, founded nearly a century ago, stood just south of the Twin Towers and was destroyed by their collapse on 9/11.
Since then, the church’s leaders have not been able to reach an agreement with the Port Authority over where and how to rebuild, and the two sides have not spoken for nearly two years.
"We gather, but without the church," Archbishop Demetrios of America told the crowd of more than 200 people who stood on the frigid construction site near Liberty Street on Sunday.
"This is not going to continue this way," the archbishop said. "The need for rebuilding is urgent and immediate."
As the only house of worship destroyed on 9/11, the church has become a symbol of wider importance than just a local parish, the archbishop said. He envisions the resurrected church as a place of gathering for the entire community, where residents and workers can "enter into a place of serenity," he said, "to have quiet time to rebuild themselves psychologically and spiritually."
The Port Authority is currently using the church’s land without permission to build an underground parking garage for the World Trade Center. On Friday, the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America threatened to sue the Port Authority to reclaim their property.
During previous negotiations in 2008, the Port offered the church a larger parcel of land farther east and $20 million to rebuild, but no deal was ever signed.
A Port spokesman said Friday that he was confident a new agreement could be reached.
The hour-long Vespers service at the Trade Center site Sunday afternoon started with the ringing a dented brass bell that survived the destruction of the church on 9/11. Children from the congregation held other damaged items from the church, including a warped gold-plated candelabra and a tattered prayer book.
In addition to St. Nicholas parishioners, the gathering included Greek Orthodox churches from around the tri-state area, representatives of the Greek consulate and local officials including City Comptroller John Liu.
The Greek and English prayers honored the Feast of St. Nicholas, the church’s namesake, commemorated the victims of 9/11 and called for rebuilding the church.
Members of the congregation said they were moved to be back at the church’s original site.
Tamias ben-Magid, a financial editor who worked at the World Trade Center and went to St. Nicholas every Wednesday, recalled the song-filled services and the peace they brought him.
"I would love to come back to pray here," said ben-Magid, a Washington Heights resident.
Archbishop Demetrios said he was hopeful about the church’s future, since St. Nicholas was known as a miracle worker.
"We are sure that with his intercession, the Church of St. Nicholas will be rebuilt," the archbishop said.