‘We will rise from these ashes’: East Village church determined to recover from devastating fire

Reverend Jacqueline Lewis stands before the burned remains of Middle Collegiate Church.
Photo by Dean Moses

Nearly a week after a tragic, six-alarm fire left the East Village’s historic Middle Collegiate Church in ruin, the work to rebuild the house of worship has only just begun.

The smoke has lifted and the world is beginning to move on, but for Reverend Jacqueline Lewis and her parishioners, it isn’t so easy. The spiritual leader of the world-renowned house of worship took the time to speak with amNewYork Metro about the church’s current state of affairs as well as their plans for the future.

As flames tore through Middle Collegiate Church, scorching the early morning sky on Saturday, Dec. 5, many heartbroken onlookers dubbed the raging inferno East Village’s Notre Dame. New York watched while the beloved community hub was gutted from the inside out.

Now, merely the hollow, outer shell remains standing beside a gigantic pile of debris that used to house Cafe Mocha.

The two buildings where the fire started on East 7th street and 2nd Avenue have been demolished. (Photo by Dean Moses)

Reverend Lewis now aims to look beyond the scorched rubble to help the church rise from the ashes, both literally and figuratively. But in doing so, she must also acknowledge that the 128 year-old building that housed so many unforgettable memories for both herself and her congregation.

“We know that we are more than the building, but it is important to say the building matters–the space matters. It was inside where we got married, inside where we organized, inside where we got ready for the pride march… all of those memories are inside that building that dates back to 1892,” Lewis said.

Lewis toured the remains of Middle Collegiate Church on Thursday morning, Dec. 10. It is still shocking for the institution’s first Black reverend to see her religious home lying in ruin, an edifice where she has spent almost two decades of her life.

Through doors hanging off their hinges, Lewis does not see a roof made of stone; instead she sees nothing but the endless blue sky.

Although the house may be gone, the worship will continue. They will be still hosting their holiday service on Dec. 20 at 11:45 a.m., while also rebroadcasting “A Bold New Love: Christmas Eve with Middle Collegiate Church,” on Christmas Eve at 9 p.m. and Christmas Day at 9 a.m., a segment filmed with CBS two years ago.

“We will continue our programming, which is all digital right now. Care is digital, we have phone conversations. We will continue giving out grants to help people pay their rent and to help them buy food. We are doubling down on love,” Lewis said.

One of the central reasons the church means so much to the East Village neighborhood is its open door welcome policy to everyone, regardless of sexual orientation.

Many of Middle Collegiate Church’s members were made up by the LGBQT community and participated in the Black Lives Matter movement, even rallying at climate change events and walking in the annual Women’s March.

That progressive mindset made the location so popular to those who didn’t feel accepted in more traditional clerical settings. These fundamental principles are core reasons why so many people from all over the world have reached out to the church in hopes of aiding them to flourish once more.

Middle Collegiate Church’s outer shell stands charred and gutted on East 7th street. (Photo by Dean Moses)

“Whenever something like this happens buildings have insurance, and insurance never covers all of the stuff,” Lewis said. “Our neighbors are already offering, they are saying ‘How can we help you,’ from as far away as China and New Zealand. People are saying how can we help you all across the country. I think people know that we do revolutionary love, and revolutionary love is contagious. People are loving us back and I am so incredibly thankful for the generous outpouring of prayers and support in solidarity and love. It’s been so heartening and hope making. Our ministry is ongoing. So, when people make a donation, they are donating to our ongoing work and setting us up to rebuild.”

So far, Middle Collegiate Church has received about $200,000 in donations. Much more is needed.

For those who want to help but can’t afford to do it monetarily, Lewis said, “Right now we don’t have access to the building, but there will be opportunities to volunteer.”

“We will rise from these ashes,” Lewis said.

As of now, the two side buildings where the fire started have been demolished. The insides may be gutted, but the side walls and their church house building still stands with damage. While the investigation is still ongoing, repairs are not in sight just yet. The church’s staff must first wait for permission from the FDNY to retrieve more belongings and precious materials.

If you want to offer a helping hand, donate at middlechurch.org/rising.

Firefighters watch over the demolition. (Photo by Dean Moses)


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