September 10th, 2010
05:58 PM ET

That other worship space at ground zero

Editor's Note: CNN's Mary Snow and Alexia Mena bring us this report on the only place of worship destroyed on 9/11 and their hopes to rise at ground zero.

(CNN) -  The unassuming three-story St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church
stood dwarfed in the shadow of the South Tower of the World Trade Center. Built
in 1916 in the style of the old village parishes in Greece, its location in
what became the glass and steel jungle of New York's financial district was
curious, to say the least.

The church had a congregation of about 70 families. They vowed to rebuild
it after the South Tower, engulfed in smoke, collapsed and crushed it on
September 11, 2001. But no real progress has been made.

The church negotiated with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which oversees construction at the site, and in 2008, both sides tentatively agreed that the church would rebuild nearby using tens of millions of dollars in public money. The plan also allowed the Port Authority to move ahead with a Vehicle Security Center, which is part of the World Trade Center redevelopment.

But the Port Authority said the church made extra demands that threatened to delay the construction of the entire site. It says it made its final offer in 2009 of up to $60 million and told St. Nicholas that the World Trade Center could not be delayed by the issue. It says the church rejected the offer and walked away.

Leaders at St. Nicholas have a different version of events. "In our perspective, they walked away," said Peter Drakoulias, an executive member of the church board. He says the church is a piece of a complicated puzzle, adding, "two different states and the city of New York make up the Port Authority. We've been through three governors and four directors of the Port Authority, so I just think that there's been a lot of cooks in the kitchen, if you will, and hopefully it will get sorted out."

While efforts to rebuild St. Nicholas reached a stalemate, a new development in Manhattan has focused the country on religious architecture and ground zero. The Cordoba House, also known as Park51, attracted enormous public attention and embroiled public officials in controversy.

While some see the church and the Islamic center as different issues, at least one Orthodox Christian leader used the Park51 controversy to redirect the dialogue to St. Nicholas. Bishop Andonios of Phasiane, chancellor of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, said that while "it's unfortunate that it took a controversy over a mosque to bring attention to [the church], there is a silver lining in that controversy, in that St. Nicholas is getting a lot of attention. We hope the support we are witnessing, a groundswelling so to speak, will get the Port Authority to come back to the table to so we can rebuild our church."

The Port Authority says that St. Nicholas has the right to build on its original location and that work could begin in 2013 when the Vehicle Security Center is completed. Stephen Sigmund, a Port Authority spokesman, says the real question always has been whether "tens of millions of public dollars should be spent to move the site to a different site on the World Trade Center site to build a church six times the size of the original church, and to make sure any arrangements for that didn't further delay the construction of the World Trade
Center site."

Drakoulias disputes the notion that the church would have to be much larger. He says the new site would account for floors of "air space" it had above its original plot that was buildable space.

He and other church leaders are determined to rebuild St. Nicholas on or near its original location. "We recognize again this is a birthright, this is the only place we want to be," Drakoulias said.

And the fight, he says, is emotional. "We're talking about literally little old ladies in their 80s who say 'I don't want to die before I see my church rebuilt,' " he said, "those are the people I personally am here to

Drakoulias is a legacy of the founding families of St. Nicholas. His grandfather was a member and was recognized as an archon, the highest honor a layman can achieve within the Orthodox Church. In his right breast pocket, Drakoulias carries a hand-sewn patch of the archon emblem. "It's part of my motivation, part of doing something in memory of my grandfather. It's what he would have done," he says.

When asked about the sticking points of size and money cited by the Port Authority, Drakoulias rejected the claim. "If it was all about money," he says, "we would have taken deals offered to us decades ago to move elsewhere. It's never been about money. It's about building on or near our original site - the birthright of St. Nicholas - to go back to that site where it was for 85
years, prior to 9/11. Plain and simple."

CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor Eric Marrapodi contributed to this report.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: 'Ground zero mosque' • 9/11 • Christianity • Church and state • Greek Orthodox Church • Houses of worship • New York • United States

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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.