‘Heartbreaking’ six-alarm inferno rips through landmark Middle Collegiate Church in East Village

First responders survey the damage wrought by a six-alarm inferno in the East Village on Dec. 5, 2020, that gutted the Middle Collegiate Church.
Photo by Dean Moses

Firefighters needed eight hours to bring under control a devastating, six-alarm inferno in the East Village that began on Saturday morning and gutted the historic Middle Collegiate Church.

The six-alarm blaze began at 4:48 a.m. on Dec. 5 inside a vacant, five-story building adjacent to the house of worship at the corner of 2nd Avenue and East 7th Street. Flames then quickly spread to the church, constructed in 1892 as the home of one of the first religious congregations in New York history.

Also damaged were the nearby Hopper Home, a shelter for 22 women which is run by the Women’s Prison Association, and the shuttered Café Mocha. 

By the time firefighters finally brought the blaze under control at 12:30 p.m. Saturday, much of the historic building had been completely destroyed — the Tiffany stained glass windows blown out, much of the roof collapsed. It proved a heart-wrenching sight for anyone familiar with the neighborhood and the congregation.

“Heartbreaking. Middle Collegiate is such an icon of the East Village. I can’t count the number of times I walked past it and took in its humble beauty,” Mayor Bill de Blasio tweeted on Saturday afternoon. “We’ll do whatever we can to help Middle Collegiate rebuild.”

The devastation brought to state Senator Brad Hoylman’s mind the 2019 fire at Paris’ iconic Notre Dame Cathedral. 

Throughout Saturday afternoon, congregation members, including Reverend Jacqueline Lewis, Middle Collegiate Church’s senior minister, combed through the ruins to salvage what they could — including paintings and church records dating back to the 1890s.

Reverend Jacqueline Lewis speaks with congregant members and Fire Department officials outside the gutted Middle Collegiate Church on Dec. 5, 2020.Photo by Dean Moses

Bystanders could only look on in shock over the burnt-out landmark church, now in ruin.

Photo by Dean Moses

Fire Department officials said the flames first developed on the first floor of the vacant building, then rapidly spread to the floors above and the adjacent Middle Collegiate Church. 

Firefighters work to put out heavy fire that vents through the roof of Middle Collegiate Church in the East Village during a five-alarm fire on Dec. 5, 2020.Photo by Lloyd Mitchell
Bystanders look on as firefighters battle the blaze at Middle Collegiate Church on Dec. 5, 2020.Photo by Lloyd Mitchell

Within moments, flames could be seen pouring out of every floor of the vacant building and many of the church’s dozen Tiffany stained glass windows. City Council Member Carlina Rivera reported on Twitter there is “significant damage” to the house of worship.

“As I said, the Church is not a building, but this one has been there for us through so much. People are here praying, we’re grieving as a community,” Rivera tweeted. She encouraged residents to donate to Middle Collegiate Church’s website, middlechurch.org, to help them begin the long process of rebuilding.

Rivera noted that she is also working with the WPA to relocate the 22 women residing at the Hopper Home, who were temporarily brought to WPA’s nearby family shelter.

“The damage this fire has caused goes far beyond the structural effects alone,” Rivera said in a statement. “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 Rev. Jacqui Lewis – someone who I’ve considered a close friend and advisor 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.”

No civilians were reportedly injured, but the Fire Department said three firefighters wound up being hospitalized for injuries not considered life-threatening. 

Firefighters receive instructions at the scene.Photo by Lloyd Mitchell
Fire Commissioner Dan Nigro surveys the scene.Photo by Lloyd Mitchell

The cause of the fire is under investigation.

‘Devastated and crushed’

Reverend Lewis expressed heartbreak over the destructive inferno, but also resolve to rebuild and continue the church’s mission.

“We are devastated and crushed that our beloved physical sanctuary at Middle Collegiate Church has burned. And yet no fire can stop Revolutionary Love,” Lewis tweeted. “We thank God that there has been no loss of life. We know that God does not cause these kinds of tragedies but is present with us and to us as we grieve, present in the hugs and prayers of loved ones.”

Members of the Middle Collegiate Church have been holding virtual services during the COVID-19 pandemic, and Lewis wrote that would continue on Sunday in spite of the tragic fire.

The roots of Middle Collegiate Church date back to 1628, when Manhattan was part of the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam. The church persisted even after the English took over the colony and renamed it New York in 1664; decades later, in 1696, it received a royal charter from King William III.

The church’s current East Village sanctuary was constructed in 1892 and houses what the congregation calls New York’s Liberty Bell, which rang on July 9, 1776 — five days after America declared its independence from Great Britain — from the church’s original sanctuary on Nassau Street in what’s now the Financial District.

The bell moved with the church over the years and is traditionally rung to mark every inauguration and death of an American president.

Co-affiliated with the United Church of Christ and the Reformed Church of America, today’s Middle Collegiate Church takes pride in having “one of the leading multicultural, multiracial congregations in the United States” and promoting marriage and racial equality.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Middle Collegiate Church allocated 10% of its budget to programming related to the Black Lives Matter movement, and allocated grants to help struggling individuals pay their rent or mortgages.

With reporting by Dean Moses

What’s left of the vacant apartment building.Photo by Dean Moses
The gutted Café Mocha.Photo by Dean Moses

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