NEW YORK — When the World Trade Center fell Sept. 11, it took a smaller icon with it: the tiny St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, one of lower Manhattan's treasures for most of a century.
"I spent much of my life in that church and suddenly there was no church--only about 15 feet of debris," said the Rev. John Romas, who has ministered to the congregation for the last 17 years and served as cantor for nearly as long before that.
The congregants at St. Nicholas, the only church destroyed in the attack, have raised money worldwide for a reconstruction that will include a shrine to all trade center victims. They are hoping too that the debris of their church will eventually yield some of the congregation's relics.
Romas and others have searched through the debris for anything to salvage; an embroidered Bible covering and a bell clapper were among the items found. But the church's most cherished relics--bone fragments of St. Nicholas, St. Catherine and St. Sava--and religious icons given by the last czar of Russia, Nicholas II, are still missing.
The relics were stored in a heavy fireproof safe, which has yet to be found at the site or at the landfill where debris from the terrorist attack has been taken.
What was found at the church site was a section of the wing from American Airlines Flight 11, the airliner that crashed into the trade center's north tower Sept. 11. Two church workers inside the building during the attack got out in time, but several members of the congregation were killed while working in the twin towers, Romas said.
"They went to do a day's work, get a day's pay, and they never came back. They had plans to get a Christmas bonus, they had plans like everybody and they never got home," Romas said.
The church building was erected in 1832 as a residence and later became a tavern. Greek immigrants bought the building in 1916 and converted it into a church. Among the first parishioners at the tiny church--just 22 feet wide, 56 feet long and 35 feet high--were the parents of actor Telly Savalas.
In addition to holding Sunday services for about 80 parishioners, St. Nicholas was open to the community at midday on Wednesdays, when many trade center workers of various faiths would stop by to meditate or pray.
Church leaders plan to rebuild with insurance money and more than $2 million donated to a reconstruction fund, including $500,000 from Bari, Italy, a town whose patron saint is St. Nicholas.
The contribution "unites us spiritually, not just the people of the two cities but also Catholics with our Orthodox brethren," said the Rev. Giovanni Matera, the superior of the Basilica of St. Nicholas in Bari.