128-Year-Old East Village Church, Home of New York Liberty Bell, in Destroyed in Fire

The Middle Collegiate Church (photo by Alex Lozupone via Wikimedia Commons)

A devastating six-alarm fire last week destroyed the Middle Collegiate Church, a 128-year-old Gothic Revival church in Manhattan’s East Village neighborhood. A neighboring single women’s shelter was also damaged in the fire’s spread, and nearly two dozen women have been displaced, Gothamist reports.

The historic building was known for housing the New York Liberty Bell, which rang on July 9, 1776, when the Declaration of Independence was read for the first time in New York. One of the oldest church bells in the country, it also rings for the inauguration and death of every American president and to commemorate significant events in the city’s history, such as the 9/11 attacks. This year, it was rung a week after the presidential election to celebrate “that love and justice” prevailed, Rev. Amanda Hambrick Ashcraft told the New York Times. (The condition of the bell remained unclear as of Saturday, according to the Times.)

Built in 1892 as the congregation’s fourth location, the Middle Church was also celebrated for its Tiffany stained glass features. The church had more than a dozen artificially lit Tiffany windows, with a massive Tiffany skylight dome in its social hall.

The fire began around 5am on Saturday, December 5, at a vacant building at 48 East 7th Street nearby. The blaze quickly spread to the church, bringing nearly 200 firefighters from 44 units to the scene. No civilians were reported injured.

“We are devastated and crushed that our beloved physical sanctuary at Middle Collegiate Church has burned,” tweeted Rev. Jacqui Lewis, the church’s Senior Minister, that morning. “And yet no fire can stop Revolutionary Love.”

Twenty-two women living at the adjacent Hopper Home, a single women’s shelter on Second Avenue operated by the Women’s Prison Association (WPA), were forced to relocate when the fire progressed to their building. Neighbors and community members quickly came to the rescue, filling an entire room with clothing donations.

“The Middle Church congregants, truly in the midst of their own crisis yesterday, responded by showing up to our family shelter where the women from Second Avenue had been re-evacuated and taking those women shopping,” WPA spokesperson Diana McHugh told Gothamist.

WPA, the nation’s first organization for women impacted by incarceration, is now encouraging monetary donations to face financial costs ahead.

The Collegiate Church, the oldest continuously-active church in North America, was established in 1628, after founders of the congregation bought land from the Lenape for $24.

“Our church story begins when Dutch settlers came to Manahattan — Island of Hills — and met (not discovered) the Lenape people living here,” says the Middle Church’s website. “We were not fair in our dealings with them. Some of our earliest clergy owned slaves.” In 2009, the church held a reconciliation ceremony with representatives of the Lenape Indians, marking the first observance of Native American Heritage Day signed into law by President Obama.

In the modern era, Middle Church embraces “inclusion, self-exploration and positive thinking” as its core values, and is known for its open support of gay, women’s, and transgender rights and the Black Lives Matter movement.

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