Hero of Saint Nicholas - September 2021 Recipient
The Reverend Father Alexander Karloutsos
On September 11, 1970, a young man who had just been ordained a Deacon five days earlier, would kneel before the Holy Altar in the Holy Cross Seminary Chapel in Brookline, and receive the laying on of hands from the ever-memorable Archbishop Iakovos to become a priest. Newly married to his beloved Xanthi, and with the promise of a new and exciting ministry, how could he have ever known that – thirty-one years later to the day – the priesthood he received that September morning would be tested on the worst day in American History since Pearl Harbor.
Since the fateful day of 9/11, no clergyman – no Orthodox Christian of any ordained or non-ordained status – has been so deeply involved in the aftermath, reclamation, and rebuilding of the Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, now a National Shrine, than Father Alex Karloutsos. He was the first Orthodox Priest on the site the Day of 9/11, because he was and still is a Port Authority Chaplain, and he was called to the site where so many perished, to comfort those who survived. As he says of that terrible first night:
“We were there – clergy from every faith – just to be a presence in the midst of this unspeakable tragedy. I remember so vividly an Orthodox Rabbi cradling a woman who had lost her husband – embracing her. This was something against his own tradition, to touch a woman in public, and yet love knew no bounds that night, and I witnessed humanity’s finest hour in the midst of the worst inhumanity imaginable.”
In the days that followed, assisted by his son, Michael, Fr. Alex facilitated the visits of the then Archbishop and other Orthodox Hierarchs and clergy to the site of what had been the little Church on Cedar Street. He knew the Church well.
“My father was a priest – a widowed priest with six children who lost my mother when I was nine years old. We were raised on the Old Calendar, which was shared by three parishes in Manhattan: St. John the Baptist on 17th Street (where my father served for while), St. George now on 54th Street, and of course, Saint Nicholas at 155 Cedar Street. I had such admiration for that little Church, because they withstood every inducement and even command to sell their Church to the Parking Lot that surrounded them like a lake. I remember vividly when Archbishop Iakovos himself summoned the Parish Council to the Archdiocese to try to persuade them to sell. But they told me that they could not abandon Saint Nicholas, because of their parents and grandparents who had worshipped there. They were people of strength and character, unmoved by the temptations of profit. As sorrowed as I am to this day by the horror and destruction of 9/11, at some level it does not surprise me that only a catastrophe of this scale could have taken away that little Church.”
Father Alex’s passion for Saint Nicholas never ran dry, and when the terrible tragedy of 9/11 martyred the Church, as well as all the thousands who were lost, he doubled down on his loyalty to Saint Nicholas and its position at the place that came to be known as “Ground Zero.’
For those who know Father Alex, and his incredible ministry of over half a century, not even the borders of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the Archdiocese are wide enough to encompass his service to the Church. For over forty years, Father Alex has served the Church by connecting our ecclesiastical leadership and affairs to civil government on the City, State, and National levels. A friend to eight Presidents of the United States, numberless members of the House and Senate, and a familiar face in the Halls of Power of Washington, DC, State Capitals, and beyond, he was the perfect person to lead the negotiations behind the scenes on behalf of Saint Nicholas.
Father Alex and a small team of committed layperson that he assembled did the hard work, the very hard work, of orchestrating the rebuilding of the Church. The complexity of the World Trade Center site was so vast, that Father Alex understood from the beginning that it was only going to be with a positive, working relationship with the Port of Authority of New York and New Jersey – who controlled the site and who had suffered such grievous losses that day – that there was going to be any hope to rebuild Saint Nicholas somewhere in the same site, if not at the previous location. In the first weeks and months after 9/11, Father Alex and his small team of “doers of the word” negotiated the site of 130 Liberty Street – less than 100 yards from the original location, as the possible site to rebuild the Church. This site – agreed to by all parties – was then subjected to years of controversy and even legal action, as history repeated itself for Saint Nicholas. Just as in the decades before, there was pressure on the Parish to give up Cedar Street, now there was an active campaign by powerful forces in government to remove Saint Nicholas from the new location on Liberty Street. But not all…. Father Alex bonded with many in the Port Authority who had a deep commitment to rebuild the Church, and he held on to those relationships like a life preserver for Saint Nicholas, the patron saint of those who sail the sea. Even when the Archdiocese was giving up hope and was entertaining the idea to leave the World Trade Center site, Father Alex stood firm like that Saint Nicholas Parish Council, and would not be moved!
Finally, lawsuits gave way to negotiation and with the wise counsel of then Governor Cuomo, a final verdict on 130 Liberty Street was reached, and the Church was guaranteed the right to rebuild. And all this while, with his Presvyerta Xanthi and his son-in-law and daughter, Father Constantine and Presvytera Anastasia (named for his late mother), he was building a new and magnificent Church and complex in Southampton, NY, at his parish of the Dormition. For Father Alex’s approach to ministry is always about edifying and building up the Church – whether through bricks and mortar, finances, governmental relations, or the ministry of a pastor whose quiet assistance to untold thousands may never reach the light of day, but has lighted many souls.
But now was the time to build the “Light on the Hill,” the “American Parthenon of Orthodoxy,” as he liked to call the new Saint Nicholas. With his vast reach in the Greek Orthodox Community of the United States and beyond, his experience as the energy that formed Leadership 100, IOCC, the Faith Fund, and so many other initiatives of the Church and the Omogeneia, Father Alex grew the funding for Saint Nicholas at an amazing rate. Because the community knew him and took him at his word.
What he did not know at that time, what was hidden from view, was that the expenses for the Shrine were out of control. After shepherding the rebuilding efforts through so many difficulties that came from forces external of the Church, and raising the funding necessary to construct the Church, perhaps the greatest heartbreak for Father Alex was when the management of construction and expenditures by the Archdiocese so utterly failed in 2017. Saint Nicholas was literally abandoned in the middle of the project. This is what he wrote in this very newsletter of December 2017, just days after construction suddenly and without warning ceased:
As many of you have learned from the Press Release of the Archdiocese on December 9, 2017, and from other media, construction on our National shrine has temporarily halted.... I can assure you that this suspension of work will indeed be temporary, as the Archdiocese strives to make the necessary course corrections that have affected not only the Shrine, but the Seminary, and its day-to-day operations.
I have a deep and abiding commitment not only to this project – the most significant in the history of the Archdiocese – but also to you, the donors who have made this dream a reality. You have trusted me with your precious resources, your confidence, and your friendship. I will not let you down.
In the coming weeks and months, there will be investigations into how funds were transferred from the St. Nicholas account and let there be no doubt that they will be returned. We must also understand how the process surrounding change orders was conducted, for this has evidently increased the price of the building. As leadership evolves around the project, we will overcome any financial challenges and your commitments to the National Shrine will be honored.
As most of you know, my specialty has always been on the income side of the equation, not the expense side. I have dedicated myself wholly to the raising of the funds to complete Saint Nicholas, and I have trusted that the institutional structure would monitor the actual construction. Although we have raised enough money to complete the church as originally envisioned, change orders and other modifications have complicated the situation, but the repair work is already underway.
As an Archdiocese, we have much to do to rebuild trust and confidence in leadership, lest we fulfill a solemn warning of our Lord (Luke 14:28-30):
“For who among you, wanting to construct a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, to see if you have enough to finish? For if you do not, and you go ahead and lay the foundation and cannot fully complete it, everyone who sees it will take to ridiculing you and saying, ‘That fellow made a start of building it, but he could not finish it’.”
There was no sugar-coating of the mismanagement. There was an honest and forthright assessment, because Father Alex would never violate the people’s trust. He had raised 45 million dollars to construct the Shrine, which was now not enough to finish.
Saint Nicholas sat abandoned for more than two years, and Father Alex concentrated on working with a dedicated group of women and men who would become “The Friends of St. Nicholas,” to bring the project back to life. The difficulties of the past had made this new non-profit necessary, because government entities no longer had confidence that the Archdiocese could finish the job.
With the election by the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Archbishop Elpidophoros, an internationally regarded dynamic and energetic Hierarch of the Mother Church of Constantinople to lead the Greek Orthodox Church of America, the clouds over Saint Nicholas began to give way to a new dawn of possibility. Hope had returned – ὄνομα καί πρᾶγμα – as the Greeks says. The light was shining again.
Beginning in 2020, right before the pandemic hit, with the Friends of St. Nicholas (FoSN), Father Alex, commenced an eighteen-month march to raise an additional 60 million dollars to complete the construction and commence the endowment of the Shrine. This truly remarkable effort demonstrated two facts. First, Father Alex and the “Friends” possessed the moral and ethical credibility to renew confidence. And two, that there really was a new day at the Archdiocese.
On September 10, 2021, one day shy of his Fifty-first anniversary of ordination to the Holy Priesthood, Father Alex stood by another exceptional Archbishop, who reminded him of the great man who had laid his hands on him so many decades before. Standing in Liberty Park, with candle lit, he watched the Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church and National Shrine shine forth at Ground Zero for the first time. Half a century of priestly ministry, and twenty years of blood, sweat, and tears had come to fruition in a harvest of yellow gold light suffusing the Shrine, a new American Parthenon of Orthodoxy.
People often say there are no coincidences in this world, only opportunities. Whatever the truth, fifty-one years ago a young priest rose from his knees before the Holy Altar and stood for the first time exclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ and His Resurrection from the Dead. That voice has sounded through the decades – through countless Liturgies, in a multitude of ministries, and is honored in both realms of Man and of God. From the Ecumenical Patriarch to Presidents of the United States, from Popes to Prime Ministers, and from devoted co-workers to grateful parishioners, Father Alex, together with his beloved Presvytera Xanthi, have made an inestimable offering to the Body of Christ.
He asked little in return. Only that those who walk alongside do so righteously, mercifully, and humbly with our God. For Father Alex, the rebuilding of Saint Nicholas has nothing to do with any love of power. It is about the power of love. Love for our God and His Holy Church.
Love for our brothers and sisters and all our neighbors. Love for mission of the Church and true service. And love the beauty and glory of our Orthodox Faith. All these loves come together at Saint Nicholas National Shrine. They are the true source of the light we see gleaming through the stone, and the light we often do not see shining in one another.
Father Alex’s efforts in the course of his life and ministry are heroic and too many to enumerate here. But one thing is for sure, if anyone is a Hero of Saint Nicholas, it is Father Alexander Karloutsos.
About the Heroes of Saint Nicholas
On the morning of September 11, 2001, Heroes emerged at Ground Zero – many of whom gave their lives. Since that fateful day, there have been contributions of enormous significance to the rebuilding of the Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church and National Shrine. These are the Heroes Saint Nicholas.
Every month, we will highlight one of these persons who played a special role in making the National Shrine a reality. The gratitude of the Greek Orthodox Church toward these people is truly incalculable. We thank them from the bottom of our hearts for what they have done to bring about the miraculous reconstruction of Saint Nicholas.