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Fire guts Middle Collegiate Church, sends women fleeing from housing shelter

BY THE VILLAGE SUN | A fast-moving fire tore through three East Village buildings early Saturday morning, gutting the historic Middle Collegiate Church and threatening an adjacent women’s shelter.

The blaze — which rapidly rose to a six-alarm fire — reportedly started in a vacant five-story building at the southeast corner of Second Ave. and E. Seventh St. Ten months ago, that same building was gutted by a fire, though that time the flames did not spread to the church.

In Saturday’s conflagration, both the house of worship, which was built in 1892, and the abandoned building suffered roof collapses. Middle Collegiate Church’s Tiffany stained-glass windows were destroyed.

The fire gutted Middle Collegiate. The church’s roof collapsed and its Tiffany stained-glass windows were destroyed. (Photo by Everynight Charley Crespo)

During the pandemic, the congregation has been worshiping online.

The building to the south of the church, 110 Second Ave., houses the Women’s Prison Association. News reports described a chaotic early-morning scene as women in slippers and robes fled in panic onto the street.

Firefighters check the remains of a ground-floor storefront on E. Seventh St. to make sure no smoldering embers are left. (Photo by Everynight Charley Crespo)

Twenty-two women who were displaced from the W.P.A. residence have reportedly been relocated to another of the organization’s residences, at 347 E. 10th St. near Avenue B. Founded in 1845, W.P.A. was the nation’s first organization devoted to helping formerly incarcerated women redefine their lives.

The fire caused the closure of several blocks of E. Seventh St. and Second Ave.

In a statement, City Councilmember Carlina Rivera said the community is “heartbroken” over the horrific fire.

“Today, the East Village community is devastated and heartbroken at learning of the six-alarm fire that damaged or destroyed at least three buildings along Second Ave. between E. Seventh and E. Sixth Sts.,” she said. “Two of the buildings — Middle Collegiate Church, which appears to have been devastated, and the Women’s Prison Association (WPA)’s Hopper Home, which received smoke damage and other possible effects — are pillars of our community.

Firefighters making sure everything is extinguished on E. Seventh St. (Photo by Everynight Charley Crespo)

“We do not know the cause of the fire, which remains under active investigation. We hold the firefighters who were injured in the blaze in our thoughts, and I want to thank all the first responders who risked their lives to extinguish this fire. While I am thankful that no deaths have been reported, my heart is so very broken for the victims of this tragedy, who have been generational leaders in our community for social justice and equality.

“My office is working closely with the FDNY, OEM, NYPD, DOB and all other relevant agencies as they continue to assess the damage to 47 E. Seventh St. — which was vacated earlier this year — Middle Collegiate Church and the Hopper Home,” Rivera said. “I promise that we will ensure this incident is investigated thoroughly. We are also working to ensure that the 22 women who were residing at the Hopper Home, and had to evacuate to WPA’s nearby family shelter, are provided with stable housing options and support. Donations to Middle Collegiate Church and WPA can be made at middlechurch.org/donate and wpaonline.org/donate, respectively.

Middle Collegiate Church and an adjacent building were left burned-out husks after the fire. (Photo by Jefferson Siegel)

“Middle Collegiate Church is one of the great, landmark institutions of our community, having served New York City for almost 400 years and for over a century providing the East Village with spiritual and physical resources,” Rivera said. “They’ve taken care of so many during our city’s darkest moments, from 9/11, to Superstorm Sandy, to the Second Ave. Explosion. And the Women’s Prison Association has provided housing, employment and assistance for justice-involved women for generations. The damage this fire has caused goes far beyond the structural effects alone.

“But we know that our East Village community is strong and we will be there beside them every step of this recovery, however we can. As we begin this difficult work, I am inspired by the words of Middle Collegiate Chruch’s Reverend Jacqui Lewis — someone who I’ve considered a close friend and adviser for many years — when she said this morning that, ‘No fire can stop Revolutionary Love.’ I will take that spirit into my heart in the coming days and weeks as we continue our response and recovery.”

In the wake of the disaster, the church will hold an online event on Zoom on Saturday at 7 p.m. called “A Space to Grieve.” (To join, use the link bit.ly/space-to-grieve⁣ or visit the church’s Web site.)

“While we know the Church is not a building — we also hold that this physical space has been the site of revolutionary work,” a message on the church’s Facebook page says.

“It has been the connecting point for so many around new ideas, around progressive theology, around dismantling white supremacy.

“It is where a lot of you found God — right in those pews.

“It is where some of you felt safe, known, and loved for the first time. ⁣

“So come: Cry. Howl. Sob. Just bring yourself, and know that — however you’re feeling — it will be held in tender care.⁣

“We are still family, this fire doesn’t change that. God weeps with us in our grief. May God surround us in love.⁣”

One Comment

  1. Anthony Donovan Anthony Donovan December 6, 2020

    Thank you, Village Sun, Thank you, CM Carlina Rivera for such a heartfelt and community-strong message. Most of all, thank Middle, for living fully the love you preach, generously, in this time of devastation. It’s something you practice daily.

    Faith leaders of the neighborhood who’ve joined with community efforts with Middle over a decade, reached out to help in any way needed that day: The Reverends Fr. Christopher Calin and Fr. Michael Suvak of Most Holy Virgin Protection, Pastor Michael Rivera and Music Dir. Jessica Rirvera of the Second Ave Church, Lama Pema of the Nechung Foundation, Jai G. of the Bhakti Center, Rabbi Sebert and Cantor Postman of Town and Village Synagogue, Felicia Kainat and Munuiddhin of the Light of Guidance Sufi Center, several from the Maryhouse and St. Joe’s Catholic Worker, Music Dir. Jeannine Otis and Rev. Anne Sawyer of St. Mark’s in the Bowery, Fr. Wendell formerly of of Most Holy Redeemer-Nativity church, extending prayers, love and solidarity. Family. Community. Part of the shining example of NYC’s and esp. the EV’s great Spirit.

    We must correct the statement in the news that the building next to Middle, where the fire started was abandoned. It was being worked on by a landlord. The lights were clearly on in two floors, the evening before the horrific blaze. There were new walls and new light fixtures clearly seen from the street that evening. So, I’m happy to hear Carlina Rivera is calling for an investigation. We’ve had way too much suffering due to the negligence, greed and oft illegal cost cutting measures.

    My personal witness to the fire that morning, should any wish:
    Walked out my door at 4:45 AM yesterday (Saturday), running a bit late for work. Through the steady rain, the air on E 4th Street was heavy with smoke. When I got to Second Ave and looked up, no fire engines yet, no sirens, just one or two police cars’ lights flashing in the haze. Quickly thought there must be some trash cans recently put out, and the police were on it.

    Got to the 3rd Ave bus stop uptown…. where the air was a bit better. But looked up and saw smoke billowing in the darkness high above the buildings, coming from about 7th Street?!! No buses were coming, called work that i’d be late, walked back toward the smoke …. a punch to my stomach…. verbally calling out “oh, no! oh, no!! Please, no!”

    By 5:10 AM the sacred beautiful roof to the sacred sanctuary, of a most sacred community that showed the way of unity in our glorious diversities, each day…. the roof had disappeared, gone down…

    Txted and got txts from so many faith leaders in the EV. Txt’d Rev. Amanda Aschraft writing, know, we’re at Middle’s service… when and how.

    The deep shock remaining, naturally, with such sudden incalculable loss. I don’t know the cause, but anger was arising about the possibility of landlords cutting more corners, doing shoddy work, I don’t know. I know the lights were on, and that it was taking unbearably long for the landlord to restore the building (since last February).

    Yes, tis true, no lives were lost and that is the key, the gift. But look at the unfathomable cost to the community.

    Got back last night (Saturday) after work, around 9 PM and just stood, and stared, Vigiled with the centuries of souls, and our dearest friends and neighbors in Spirit.

    Middle…. again, Teachers, bearing burdens, channeling the Power of Love the best you can.

    Profound gratitude, and solidarity. Many are on call for you in the weeks/moths ahead.

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