Massive fire destroys historic church that houses New York Liberty Bell

Middle Collegiate Church in New York City on Dec. 5, 2020. | Twitter/NY state Sen. Brad Hoylman

A massive fire, which erupted early Saturday in a vacant building in New York City’s East Village, spread to and destroyed one of the city’s oldest churches that is home to New York’s Liberty Bell, among other structures, including a women’s shelter.

The blaze, which started before 5 a.m. Saturday inside a five-story building on East 7th Street, gutted the 128-year-old Middle Collegiate Church and the Liberty Bell that was rung in 1776 to celebrate the signing of the Declaration of Independence, The Associated Press reported.

The bell is also rung to commemorate the inauguration and death of every president of the United States.

“We are devastated. We are gutted like our building is gutted; our hearts are crushed like our doors are crushed,” the Rev. Jacqueline J. Lewis, who leads the church which was constructed in 1892 and is today known for being progressive, was quoted as saying. “But we know how to be the church, and we know that God is God, yesterday, today and tomorrow.”

Calling the fire “heartbreaking,” NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio tweeted, “We’ll do whatever we can to help Middle Collegiate rebuild.” He added, “I can’t count the number of times I walked past it and took in its humble beauty.”

The cause of the fire that left “extensive damage” was being investigated as of Saturday evening, the New York City Fire Department told CBS News.

According to FDNY Assistant Chief John Hodgens, four firefighters received minor injuries with battling the blazes.

Middle Collegiate tweeted a message to its members Saturday, saying, “To our incredible congregation: Cry. Mourn. Howl. And know: God is weeping with us. But like a phoenix, we will rise from these ashes. Resurrection will always have the final word.”

Benjamin Perry, also a minister at the church, said he was “too devastated (and) heartbroken… It feels like someone I love has died.” However, he added, the congregation’s “love is too fierce, too bold, too brilliant to be consumed by any flame.”

“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,” Lewis was quoted as saying. “Our church has been worshipping digitally since March 15, and that’s what we’ll be doing tomorrow.”

The fire also caused damage to the Women’s Prison Association’s Hopper Home, which is next to the Middle Collegiate Church. It’s a shelter for women with a history of, or at risk of, involvement with the criminal legal system.

“A fire devastated our neighborhood early this morning. We are thankful that no one was injured, though we are heartbroken by the loss of our neighbor’s beautiful and historic sanctuary,” the WPA tweeted. “WPA and @middlechurch have stood side by side as neighbors in the East Village since the church was built in 1891. We arrived in 1854 after a fire destroyed our first home nearby,” it added.

Olga Rodriguez, who works at the shelter, told CBS New York, “It was very scary, and the ladies were running in their slippers, in their bathrobes, in their pajamas. They were sleeping… These ladies have gone through a lot. They don’t need to go through this, too.”

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