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East Village Fire Badly Damages Church

A fire in a vacant building in the East Village early Saturday morning spread to a 128-year-old church that houses the New York Liberty Bell, destroying its Gothic-style sanctuary and blowing out the Tiffany stained-glass windows that adorned the stone facade, fire and church officials said.

“I see a gutted building full of smoke,” said the Rev. Jacqui Lewis, senior minister for public theology and transformation at Middle Collegiate Church, a Reformed Protestant congregation that predates the American Revolution. “The sanctuary is gone, absolutely gone.”

The cause of the fire at the vacant building at 47 East 7th Street, which was reported at 4:48 a.m., is under investigation, officials said. Four firefighters had minor injuries, John Hodgens, an assistant fire chief, said.

The building has been vacant since February, after a smaller fire broke out. That fire was ruled an accident, Chief Hodgens said.

Owners listed for the vacant building, which once housed a cafe, could not immediately be reached.

The fire on Saturday spread to the church on Second Avenue and another building on Seventh Street, Chief Hodgens said. That building is the site of the Women’s Prison Association, a shelter for single women coming out of prison, according to church leaders who work with the shelter.

Fire officials said they did not know the extent of the damage to the shelter but described the church as heavily damaged. “It’s going to be a difficult time for them to rebuild,” Chief Hodgens said of the church.

On Saturday morning, congregants and East Village residents stood in the cold rain and watched, some crying and others shaking their heads in disbelief, as firefighters put out what remained of the fire.

“Am I hallucinating or is this actually happening?” said Joolz Gemini, 58, who joined the church 15 years ago and came to Second Avenue after a friend from Europe texted him about the fire.

Gwen Deely, 71, stood across the street from the church, wearing a purple T-shirt that read “Love. Period.” The statement symbolized the progressive themes of the church, which supports social justice causes like Black Lives Matter.

“It’s such a part of the neighborhood,” Ms. Deely said before pausing to cry. “It’s the fabric of the neighborhood. We will come back. We will. It’s our family. We call it our Middle family.”

The church welcomed everyone, she said, including Broadway stars and the destitute seeking help.

“It didn’t matter,” Ms. Deely said. “We welcome everyone. We have a diverse membership.”

Middle Collegiate Church was built in 1892 and has a congregation of about 1,400 members, said the Rev. Amanda Hambrick Ashcraft, the church’s executive minister for justice, education and movement building.

Ms. Lewis, who joined Ms. Ashcraft at the scene, said all that remained of the church was its stone front and signs that read “Just Love,” the church’s motto, and “Black Lives Matter.”

“The value of Black lives didn’t burn,” she said.

The ministers said they were hopeful they would be able to save the steeple, where the New York Liberty Bell had hung in the belfry.

Ms. Lewis said they were anxious to learn the fate of the bell, one of the oldest church bells in the country. It is about 25 years older than the cracked Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, according to a 1959 New York Times article.

Cast in Amsterdam in 1729, the bell was rung in 1735 to celebrate freedom of the press after John Peter Zenger, a German journalist, was acquitted of charges of seditious libel. He had published criticism of British tax collectors, according to the Times article.

It also was rung on the day that Representative John Lewis died in July and a week after the presidential election to celebrate “that love and justice” prevailed, Ms. Ashcraft said.

The condition of the bell as of Saturday evening was unclear.

Middle Collegiate Church is the oldest congregation of the Collegiate Churches of New York, which were organized in 1628, making Middle Collegiate Church the oldest continuously active church in North America, according to church historians. The church was incorporated by royal charter from King William III of England in 1696.

The first church was built in 1729 on Nassau Street, then moved to Lafayette Place and Fourth Street in 1839.

The church at its current site had more than a dozen Tiffany windows and the social hall featured an enormous Tiffany skylight dome.

In 2009, church leaders apologized for the congregation’s early days when founders bought land from the Lenape people for $24. Some of the earliest clergy leaders owned slaves.

Now the church is known for participating in demonstrations and marches in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, the rights of women and gay and transgender people, and efforts to combat climate change.

“This is known as being one of the most progressive, multiethnic churches in America,” Ms. Lewis said.

Ms. Lewis said congregants had been meeting virtually since March and would gather again on Sunday for worship online.

“We know that the spirit of God is much bigger than a building,” Ms. Ashcraft said. “We are hopeful and confident that we will continue to be a movement for love and justice.”

Mr. Gemini compared the fire to the one that nearly destroyed Notre-Dame cathedral in 2019.

“This is our Notre-Dame,” he said. “Just like them, we will rebuild too.”

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