‘This corner is cursed!’ East Village church fire the latest in heartbreaking tragedies

Onlookers observe the wreckage of Middle Collegiate Church the day after the fire. (Photo by Dean Moses)

One thought came to the mind of an East Village resident who gazed helplessly upon the smoldering remains of the historic Middle Collegiate Church and neighboring buildings on Dec. 5.

“This corner is cursed!” exclaimed Julie S. as she looked at the charred destruction at the corner of East 7th Street and Second Avenue. The fire began just before 5 a.m. the morning of Dec. 5 and took firefighters eight hours to bring under control. By then, most of the 128-year-old Middle Collegiate Church was completely destroyed.

It was the latest in a series of tragedies that has befallen the intersection in recent years. Just across the street, on the northwest corner, a gas explosion in 2015 killed two people, injured more than a dozen people and destroyed three buildings.

Back in February, the Café Mocha — located inside the five-story vacant residential building where Saturday’s fire began — and several apartments above it were also damaged in a blaze. That proved to be the harbinger of Saturday’s devastating six-alarm inferno that began in that building and spread to the church.

By the afternoon of Dec. 5, hundreds of members of the Lower East Side community had gathered behind NYPD barriers and caution tape, the pulsating lights from FDNY firetrucks illuminating their grief-stricken faces. The fire was distressing to all who call the neighborhood home, but it is not the first tragedy they have witnessed in the past few years.

“I was keeping hope that the businesses would come back, they have been around a long, long time… but now they are not coming back. For them the dream has died,” said Julie S., who lives nearby on East 10th Street.

A firefighter examines the fractured windowpane of Café Mocha following the fire on December 5th. (Photo by Dean Moses)

For Linda Justice, a longtime Lower East Side resident, seeing East 7th Street on fire is déjà vu.

“The whole restaurant caught on fire, they had been renovating it, and three buildings went up right next to the ice cream store,” Justice said, referencing the February fire, pointing at Van Leeuwen’s Ice Cream parlor.

The history of fires in the area has become local legend, but still residents like Justice watched on with bated breath, fearful of an additional gas explosion as Con Edison workers furiously drilled into the concrete beside the site of the fire.

According to neighbors, the fear of flames has become immense in the East Village, but so has the anxiety concerning gentrification. These two very different subjects have become interwind after a building lost to last year’s fire was replaced by luxury apartments.

Now, as the smoke begins to clear after days filled with sorrow, some community members are already looking to the future with unease in their hearts and concern on their lips.

For them, it is hard not to look at the burnt-out husks on 2nd Avenue and not worry about what could be standing there in years to come.       

Well into the afternoon on December 5th, firefighters doused water into several buildings on East 7th street. (Photo by Dean Moses)

“This is where the gas explosion was last time and look what they put up there, so it could happen. It’s not going to be affordable housing, that’s for sure.  I hope they can rebuild the church; I hope they get money for that,” Linda Mitchell told amNewYork Metro.

Coming together to rise up

Later on Saturday night, Middle Collegiate Church held a Zoom call entitled “A Space to Grieve,” allowing those who have been emotionally affected by the fire to mourn among a collective of fellow parishioners and residents. The Zoom was instantly flooded with hundreds of users, swiftly reaching its maximum capacity.

In addition to the online meeting, Linda Sarsour started a fundraiser through Facebook to help rebuild the iconic landmark. By the end of the day the fundraiser’s goal of $5,000 had been met, bringing some semblance of peace to the end of a heartbreaking day.       

As congregants and other well-wishers offer their prayers and condolences for the Middle Collegiate, communally deemed as the Notre Dame of the Lower East Side, Rev. Lewis shared her gratitude on Twitter, providing a statement to those who want to help: “First and foremost, you can put your shoulder next to ours in the fight against racism, homophobia, antisemitism, Islamophobia and every sinful hatred.”

The parish has had a fundamental mission, Revolution of love, a peaceful philosophy that battles an emotional fire society faces every day — hate. In addition, Lewis said that it was not just the church that was damaged by the fire, the Women’s Prison Association (WPA) was also destroyed. 

Rev. Jacqui Lewis tearfully shares memories of the Middle Collegiate Church during a virtual mass on Sunday, December 6th.

Sunday morning, Dec. 6, Middle Collegiate Church held a virtual Sunday service, with Lewis leading her sermon on what marked the second day of advent and mourning. 

“I am sad today because our beautiful building has burned down, but I light this candle in expectation. In hope that peace will soon come,” she said.

Tearfully, Lewis remembered her tenure at the church and the generations of lives who’ve been touched by it, and the heartache she felt when visiting the site this morning to observe the wreckage.

“The skeletal remains of our sanctuary, guys, it’s a tough site to see,” Lewis said.

From opening its doors following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks to helping people clear soot and dust from their eyes when the Twin Towers fell, to the many weddings, baptisms, funerals, and the ultimate closure due to COVID-19, Middle Collegiate Church has been a peaceful sanctuary for thousands.  

“Our grief is excruciating because our love is so great,” Lewis added.

Despite the extreme pain and upset, Lewis wants to look towards the future of rebuilding, making their church a bigger location,  a space for children to learn, and developing a community center for art. 

“Why a fire, what happened? We don’t know that’s being investigated, but gosh, I’m so sad about it and I’m mad about it. But something else is also happening [inside of me], I’m beginning to imagine that out of these ashes, out of our grief, something is going to emerge that is going to surprise us,” she said with tears streaming down her face and a small smile appearing.

If you would like to help Middle Collegiate Church, visit middlechurch.org/donate.

Middle Collegiate Church’s brass doors hang on their hinges with broken glass. (Photo by Dean Moses)

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