Source: The National Herald
It is many years later, but looking back, I could reminisce that I would say “today and tomorrow, the final preparations are being made for the Divine Liturgy for New Year’s at the historic Church of Aghios Nikolaos – St. Nicholas at the World Trade Center.”
That is the beloved church that disappeared, literally, beneath the rubble of the adjacent Twin Towers of New York when, on September 11, 2001, the terrorists’ planes crashed into them.
I recall one Sunday after New Year’s Day, after the Divine Liturgy, when the traditional New Year’s cake was cut for the Community. I remember Presbytera Ourania, wife of the late Fr. John Romas, the priest of the church at the time it was destroyed.
Fr. Romas, once told me, “unfortunately, we didn’t have ‘lires’ – precious coins – to put in the New Year’s cake, we only put dimes…”
For New Year’s Day, the congregation was usually very small, especially when it was a weekday. Fr. Romas, with the humor that characterized him, with his smile and perpetual good humor, would call the few faithful to the upper story and he would be the first to start singing the ‘kalanda’ (New Year’s carols) and offering good wishes for health and all the best to everyone. He would leave the cutting of the cake for the following Sunday. The atmosphere inside the church and on the upper floor was completely different a week earlier, during the Christmas celebrations. Greek-Americans from Connecticut and New Jersey traveled by buses and trains at night to attend the church service on Christmas eve at St. Nicholas. I remember Fr. Romas telling me that because parking was very difficult in the surrounding area, he told the worshippers who would go on Christmas night to park wherever they could and give him the parking tickets afterward. Illegal parking was then $15-20, quite a sum of money for those years. Fr. Romas himself would take those tickets to the captain of the local police station, who would cancel them.
While in the early years there were few faithful who went to the church during Fr. Romas’ time there, gradually their number increased until the church was full for the Christmas Divine Liturgy. There were fewer, however, at the liturgy for New Year’s.
I remember Fr. Romas well. He emphasized to me that everything was read in Greek during the Divine Liturgy the evening of Christmas Eve and people felt like they were back in their towns and villages in Greece. After midnight, when the Liturgy ended, everyone together sang the kalanda and people went upstairs where coffee and holiday cookies were offered.
Fr. Romas once emotionally said to me, “we would exchange good wishes, sing the kalanda again, and those who had good voices would sing various holiday songs.”
I also remember Presbytera Ourania, who told me that the whole atmosphere was like Christmas in the homeland, especially in our villages. “Most of the faithful who came to worship were poor and hardworking, with faith in their hearts, traveling for hours by cars or by buses and trains from more distant areas. When a stranger came to our church, the priests, the Parish Council, and the women of Philoptochos always welcomed them and introduced them to others.”
I remember Fr. Romas talking to me about the people who attended church during those festive days. Several traveled to St. Nicholas from Connecticut. Another entire family came from Hazlet, New Jersey, which is far away, and they had to take a bus and train – and had to return that night. Sometimes Greek shipowners would go to Nicholas for the Christmas Divine Liturgy. Many actors visited the church for the traditional ceremony of Theophany, when they threw the cross into the waters of nearby Battery Park. One year, the famous Greek-American actor who played ‘Kojak’ on television, Telly Savalas, went with his brother, George Savalas.
In the early years of the parish St. Nicholas followed the Old Calendar but was under the jurisdiction of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. The congregation on Sundays was about 6-10 people. The priest in charge from 1971 was Fr. Christos Papachristou, who passed away in 1987. He was replaced by his son-in-law, Fr. Romas, who had been a chanter and then was ordained a priest in Greece in 1983 by his brother-in-law, Metropolitan Damaskinos of Fthiotida.
I remember that the late Fr. Romas was proud until the end that he served in this little church, which despite its destruction from the terrorist attacks, remains forever in America – and not only in American history, but in the hearts and minds of those who loved Aghios Nikolaos.