[Episcopal News Service] It’s not quite a journey into the wilderness, but members of the Episcopal Church of St. Luke and St. Matthew in the Clinton Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn will be leaving their sanctuary during Lent as the church undergoes repairs following a fire two days before Christmas.
Investigators determined the early-morning fire was arson, said the Rev. Michael Sniffen, rector. “The fire was set by somebody pouring gasoline across the entrances to the church and setting it on fire. They have not apprehended anyone, but the investigation is open and it’s being treated as a hate crime.”
They do not believe the Dec. 23 fire was related to the church’s ministry as a major distribution hub for post-Hurricane Sandy relief services, he said. “The investigators didn’t have any reason to believe that it was about anything in particular.”
Church Insurance has been working to determine the extent of the damage and the restoration required, getting estimates from experts in masonry, stained glass and other specialties, but does not yet have a total dollar estimate of the cost of the damage, Sniffen said. Scaffolding will be erected in February, and the congregation will move out of the sanctuary for about 12 weeks while repairs are made. They will worship in one of the church’s parish halls and hold fellowship in another.
“We’re confident that it will be restored to like-new condition, but it’s going to be months of work even after the scaffolding comes down,” Sniffen said.
The fire burned the main entrances and narthex and caused extensive smoke damage. The entire interior of the 1,700-person-capacity church must be repainted, he said. “That’s no small task.”
None of the Operation Sandy hurricane-relief supplies were damaged, Sniffen said. “We had cleared all of the donations out of the church in order to get ready for Christmas Eve. We had hundreds of Christmas gifts for children, but those were all in the lower parish hall, so they were fine.”
The church had been moving toward supporting longer-term recovery efforts, Sniffen said. Donated relief supplies now are located at Church of the Ascension in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, and a Coney Island warehouse. The relief kitchen has moved to St. John’s Episcopal Church in Fort Hamilton, Brooklyn. The Occupy Sandy communications team, initially slated to remain indefinitely at St. Luke and St. Matthew, moved to Ascension after the fire severely damaged the room it was using.
Once repaired, St. Luke and St. Matthew intends to continue to host the communications team and train volunteers as well as become a host site for out-of-state work crews. It plans to renovate its bathrooms to add showers, and to renovate the kitchen. And because of the strong relationships that have been built through the relief work, the church also will host the People’s Network, dealing with local economic-justice, housing and food-justice issues, Sniffen said. “That will be a whole constellation of outreach programs rooted in our buildings that are supported by the faith community but are very broadly inclusive of everybody who shares our mission in the neighborhood.”
On Feb. 1-3, the church will host The People’s Recovery Summit, bringing together people and resources to discuss post-Sandy disaster-relief issues ranging from mold remediation and health care to gutting and rebuilding houses and child care. The free summit will offer three meals a day and a concert each night.
“People can show up for all or a portion of it,” Sniffen said. “We’re just excited for people who’ve been doing this work together to get together and to really identify what are the unmet needs and how can we work together to alleviate suffering.”
The church has received strong community support since the fire. The morning of the fire, the congregation worshiped with the members of nearby Brown Memorial Baptist Church, which was celebrating Christmas on what was for the Episcopalians Advent IV. “It was sort of like Christmas came early,” Sniffen said.
The congregation was allowed back into its sanctuary for Christmas Eve services, and people drove in “from all over the place” to help decorate, he said. “People showed up from farms in upstate New York with additional poinsettias. The church really looked beautiful. Our attendance was in the 300s.”
His sermon, rewritten post-fire, is posted on the church website.
“I think the mood of the congregation is really undeterred,” Sniffen said. The church burned down twice before, “and the church was rebuilt bigger each time, and the congregation grew in size each time.
“So there’s really a sense that fire has had a role in renewal in this church’s past.”
While congregants were upset by the fire, he said, “almost immediately people turned to an attitude of rebuilding.”
“People had such a powerful experience of how integral a church can be to the life of a city and a community through all of our hurricane relief. So everybody was very focused on getting the church repaired so we could get back to what we do best: loving and serving our neighbors.”
— Sharon Sheridan is an ENS correspondent.