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Over a year after Brooklyn church fire, congregants and Episcopal diocese split on rebuilding

This is the Emmanuel Episcopal Church of Sheepshead Bay as the property stands today. The building in the rear is the still vacant parish house. (Photo by Todd Maisel)

Dilapidated green particle board walls still surround the site of the former Emmanuel Episcopal Church, a former historic wooden sanctuary that was nearly 100 years old. The Brooklyn church burned nearly to the ground on Nov. 28, 2018 in a massive, three-alarm fire.

The question of what happens at the dormant site on East 23rd Street in Sheepshead Bay is now embroiled in an internal battle with church elders and the Episcopal Diocese over whether to finance a costly rebuild, combine with another parish, or rebuild closer to where the remaining congregants and prospective parishioners live.

The Emmanuel Episcopal faithful hold their Sunday services in the basement cafeteria of St. Mark’s Roman Catholic Church on Ocean Avenue, a few blocks from the church property. This past Sunday, Feb. 23, about 30 people gathered.

This is the congregation meeting in the cafeteria of St. Marks Roman Catholic Church. (Photo by Todd Maisel)

Some church elders believe the fire was arson, but fire marshals later determined that the blaze was sparked by workers attempting to sweat pipes to run water into the building so that they could provide bathrooms. Up until then, the congregation was using a portable bathroom located outside the church building.

It was the second major fire to hit the building in the last dozen years; the first destroyed the parish house that was connected to the church on East 23rd Street. A new building sits on that site, but according to the diocese, the city refuses to issue a certificate of occupancy for it, as the construction does not conform to the flood plain as prescribed after Hurricane Sandy inundated the area in 2012.

The Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Sheepshead Bay was totally destroyed by fire in 2018. (Photo by Todd Maisel)

The Department of Buildings issued a statement saying permits were filed in 2008 to construct the parish building. Permits were first issued for this project in 2010, and most recently expired in December 2018. Additional plumbing and boiler permits associated with the new building project expired in Fall 2019.

The DOB added that the congregation did not return to the agency to renew the permits, finish the job, and file for an application to receive a Certificate of Occupancy for the building.  

Both the Episcopal diocese and the congregation admit that none of the parishioners actually live close to the site; most of them are scattered across the city. But church elders have dug in and insisted that the diocese release funds to build a new church.

Alex Gunthorps, son of the former pastor Alexander Gunthorps Sr., said he believes the church elders should be more aggressive.

“They seem timid on the issue – very afraid, and they feel they are walking on egg shells with Bishop so everyone is sitting back saying ‘maybe tomorrow,'” Gunthorps said.

Bishop Lawrence Provenzano of the Episcopal Church Diocese believes the church congregation should not rebuild at that site and instead examine other options including rebuilding at another site “closer to where the parishioners live.”

Provenzano said the demographics of the community has changed – currently Russian Orthodox and it would be “wise” to build where Episcopal parishioners live because rebuilding in Sheepshead Bay would result in a further dwindling of the congregation and to a final dissolution of the congregation.

In the meantime, the bishop claimed money that was earmarked for the new parish hall from a former insurance settlement was not monitored properly by his predecessor, and so the new building is not able to be occupied because the city will not issue a certificate of occupancy. He said other money received from that insurance settlement has been “mismanaged.”

This is the unfinished parish house of Emmanuel Episcopal of Sheepshead Bay. Photo by Todd Maisel)

“There is about 30-40 people of may be six or seven families – a remnant of original congregation and it has not been not much bigger for long time,” Provenzano said. “A fire took the church in a mishap by a contractor running pipes into the building — they had no water or sprinklers in the building and were using a porto-potty outside.”

Provenzano said that the parish does not own the property, instead it’s owned by the trustees of the Episcopal Church and the trustees don’t believe the church should spend well over a million dollars to build a new church and fix the issues of the 3-story parish hall.

“This doesn’t mean the parish of Emmanuel comes to end, but rebuilding is not going forward as pertains to the trustees — and the congregation should understand that is reality,” the bishop added. “I don’t know what we do with parish building because it is not occupy-able. They don’t seem to want to understand – all they know is that the Bishop wants to shut us down – but I want to be their champion.”

Provenzano has offered the congregation choices including combining with nearby St. Simon Church, or the Nativity Church on Ocean Avenue further into Flatbush where he said more prospective church goers live.

“We would let them take their assets with them — they think we are blocking them, but the trustees who are very knowledgeable don’t believe we should be spending any more money on this project,” Provenzano said, adding “if I gave them a million cash, it still wouldn’t get them a C of O for that parish house – our real estate people are working on it.”

Provenzano maintains that funds should be used in a “more accessible I neighborhood with real growth.”

“The demographics changed drastically and there is not a lot of opportunity to grow so if we build a new church, they will run out of people in 10 years — the new ethnic population is not interested in episcopal church,” he said.

Gunthorpe said that while he realizes the congregation is scattered – his parents live closest in Canarsie and he lives in Long Island – he said they have a right to meet where they choose.

“I used to live around the corner – but we don’t have place to worship and the church just wants to sell the property,” Gunthorpe said. “The Bishop simply doesn’t want us to worship there because it is prime real estate. The congregation has been thriving, but they will not release the insurance money and they have stopped us from getting a loan. They just want to decide where we worship.”

“My dad and the Bishop had quite a falling out, my dad, so he retired,” he continue. “The insurance should’ve gone right to church to rebuild, but they have held on to it – a few hundred thousand dollars. They’ve been trying to get us to close and combine with another church – they want us to sell.”

But Provenzano said the Emanuel leadership is “out of step with the way to go.”

“They are dedicated to doing same thing over and over again, and it will be big of tug of war, but we will handle this with as much grace as possible,” Provenzano said.

None of the Emmanuel Church elders returned calls for comment.

In the meantime, residents of Sheepshead Bay wonder what will happen with the site, many saying they would rather have a new church than “more expensive condos crowding the community.”

Nick Diaz, a resident for more than 20 years across from the church, said developers have been “grabbing up property to build expensive condos – crowded like Manhattan.”

“I’d rather see a new church than a condo,” Diaz said, saying he knew the Gunthorpe family before they moved away – they were nice people.

“They were cool people and we had no problem with them, though sometimes squatters would be living in their building,” Diaz said. “Building more condos is killing the community because we are getting overcrowded and there is no parking. It would be great for them to rebuild, but also to use the building on other days other than just Sundays.”

The Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Sheepshead Bay was totally destroyed the fire. (Photo by Todd Maisel)
The Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Sheepshead Bay is examined by firefighters after the fire in 2018. (Photo by Todd Maisel)

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