Demolition of the facade that survived the 2020 Middle Collegiate Church fire will begin Nov. 20, Senior Minster Jacqui Lewis said in an email to her New York City congregation.
“It’s deeply sad, but I’m also filled with hope and faith by this community who has moved through trauma with fierce love to build something new. Taking down the last pieces of what the fire destroyed is the final step to clear the way for our future,” she said.
The announcement comes nearly three years after the Dec. 5 blaze that gutted the sanctuary of the historic church with Baptist connections and affiliations with the United Church of Christ and Reformed Church in America.
To mark the beginning of demolition, which will take several days, Lewis said she will lead a morning press conference to share rebuilding plans with media and the East Community. Those remarks will be followed by a day-long vigil. “We’ll pray. We’ll sing. We’ll mourn. Tears will fall, songs will rise, and we will share the joy of being together, even in this most bittersweet gathering.”
A late-afternoon ceremony is planned to give space for grieving the lost sanctuary and for envisioning ministry and facilities moving forward, she said. “As you come — when you come — we invite you to bring flowers, a candle, prayers, drawings or anything else you would like to leave upon the vigil altar. As the sky turns dark, we will light candles, proclaiming our resilience as we rise.”
Lewis said she has experienced a range of feelings since the fire. “Every time I walk past our facade, I’m flooded with overwhelming mixed emotions. Sorrow that a sanctuary once so full of life now lies in ashes. Radiant joy as I remember music and prayer that reverberated from its walls. Grief that what is left cannot be saved.”
Lewis and other church officials have acknowledged the Middle Church community has been on an emotional roller coaster since the early fire that destroyed their spiritual home.
The early morning blaze came during Advent, an especially traumatizing experience during the Christian season of anticipation and waiting. Worse still, the congregation lost its building at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, preventing church members from grieving together and blocking staff from meeting in person to plan immediate next steps.
But the congregation and community rallied. Hours after the Saturday fire, the church hosted an open Zoom meeting for hurting members and held virtual worship the next morning. Christmas services proceeded online as artistic and musical benefits were being arranged to help with rebuilding. And the church’s advocacy for racial, LGBTQ, gender, economic and environmental causes proceeded without interruption, church leaders said at the time.
When in-person gatherings were permitted in New York, Middle Church accepted an invitation from East End Temple, a Reform Judaism congregation, to hold services in its spaces.
Another hurdle was cleared in January when the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission voted 8-2 to allow the removal of the remaining facade. The vote followed protracted opposition from preservation groups who did not want the historic structure demolished even though engineering studies showed the remnants to be unsafe.
The church’s demolition announcement included a reminder about the safety issue. “Sadly, the fire so badly damaged the remaining structure that it could not be salvaged, in the interest of public safety. While this is a moment of communal grief, it will also clear the way for Middle to build a new sanctuary, as the community continues to rise.”
Community leaders will be available to outline how the rebuilding of Middle Church will be a boost for the East Village community while Lewis will show how they overlap with the congregation’s reparations work.
“The gathering will embody an ethos that has always defined New York: Resiliency that rebuilds from tragedy by reshaping the neighborhood in ways that honor the past but chart a bold new future,” the church said.