The first time Father John Romas approached ground zero it was hard to find the site of St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church.
Rescue workers in the World Trade Center ruins then watched in silence as the man in black robes fell to his knees and began weeping.
"My church was gone. There was no church at all -- no doors, no walls, no windows," said the priest, trying to express himself in English. "I cried and cried. Then I looked up and saw what was left of the towers. Then I started crying again and I cried twice as long. ...
"We will rebuild. There is no question. We have suffered a great loss, but our church can be rebuilt. But how can we replace the people, the thousands of lives? How can we weep enough those who were lost?"
Across the street, workers are searching for the bodies of nearly 6,500 people who are missing after the terrorist attack. The members of St. Nicholas do not think that any parishioners died when the towers, a mere 250 feet away, fell onto their small sanctuary in an avalanche of concrete, glass, steel and fire.
Nevertheless, the Orthodox believers want to search in the two-story mound of debris for the remains of three loved ones who died long ago -- the relics of St. Nicholas, St. Katherine and St. Sava. Small pieces of their skeletons were kept in a gold-plated box marked with an image of Christ. This ossuary was stored in a 700-pound, fireproof safe.
"We do not think it could have burned. But perhaps it was crushed," said Father Romas. "Who knows? All we can do is wait and pray."
Workers have only been able to recover a charred cross, a twisted brass candelabra and bits of marble that may have come from the altar. At mid-week, the search for the relics had been postponed again.
It's hard for outsiders to understand what this loss would mean to a parish, said Father Robert Stephanopoulos, dean of the city's Cathedral of the Holy Trinity. These ties with the saints are more than symbolic. This mystery is rooted in centuries of tradition.
"We believe the Communion of the Saints is real and that we worship and pray with all the saints in heaven," he said. "But these particular saints are also a part of that parish family, in a unique way. They have been a part of that parish for many years and, of course, the people want to see these relics recovered. Yes, this is a family matter."
The building that became St. Nicholas (www.stnicholasnyc.org) was built as a private residence and even spent a few years as a tavern. The four-story structure was not dramatic on the outside, except for the sight of its Byzantine cross standing in stark relief against the soaring glass-and-steel towers. But on the inside it was a haven in the urban chaos. Its candles and icons -- gifts from Czar Nicholas II of Russia -- inspired people of many church traditions to spend their lunch hours in prayer.
Father Romas said he does not know the names of the saints whose relics were sealed into the altar 80 years ago. Once those relics were in place, the altar would have been washed and vested in a rite that in some ways resembles a baptism. These traditions began in the early church, where persecuted Christians often worshipped in catacombs near the tombs of the martyrs.
This parish is named after St. Nicholas of Myra, the 4th century saint who in many Western lands evolved into St. Nick. The bishop is the patron saint of merchants, endangered children and seafarers, a connection with the history of lower Manhattan. The relics of St. Katherine and St. Sava came from monasteries connected with those saints.
"They are irreplaceable. They are special links to these saints that we love," said Lorraine Romas, the priest's wife. "But our church will live on, no matter what. We hope that someday our new sanctuary will be a place where people can come and pray and light candles for those who died. We must have a place like that."