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Members of Historic NYC Church Devastated after Blaze Destroys Building Just Hours After Easter Celebrations

( [email protected] ) May 02, 2016 08:46 AM EDT
A 166-year-old church in New York City in was destroyed in a raging fire on what has been called a "very sad day" for its Orthodox worshipers, who had celebrated Easter at the historic structure just hours earlier.
Firefighters at the 19th-century Serbian Orthodox Cathedral of St. Sava on Sunday. Credit Kathy Willens/Associated Press

A 166-year-old church in New York City in was destroyed in a raging fire on what has been called a "very sad day" for its Orthodox worshipers, who had celebrated Easter at the historic structure just hours earlier.

According to NBC, the fire started at 7 p.m. Sunday at the Serbian Orthodox Cathedral of St. Sava in Manhattan - described as the "backbone of New York's Serbian Orthodox community" - and was largely extinguished nearly three hours later.

The blaze destroyed the church's roof and left nothing but the building facade, which the outlet notes is in danger of collapse. Numerous photos and videos on social media showed billows of smoke rising over Manhattan and flames engulfing the church.

More than 700 Orthodox Christians had celebrated Easter Mass earlier in the day and enjoyed a luncheon, but the cathedral was empty when the fire started except for a caretaker, who was rescued by firefighters.

"No one has been injured, there is no one reported missing, and that's the good news for today. The bad news is this church has been destroyed by fire," FDNY Commissioner Daniel Nigro told NBC, calling it a "very sad day."

The New York Times reveals that less than two hours before the devastation occurred, St. Sava staff members had posted pictures of the Easter services on the church's official Facebook page showing priests and parishioners smiling over baskets of colorfully dyed eggs.

Those who had worshiped in the Gothic Revival style building expressed shock and sadness over the devastation.

Father Djokan Majstorovic, the church's priest, told reporters, "I feel like I'm in a nightmare right now," he said.

Through tears, parishioner Jovana Djurdjevic said, "It means the world to me and to see it [...] I was just here four hours ago for Easter."

"This church brought everyone together, because although there are Serbian churches in New Jersey, this is like the only one in New York," she added. "This is absolutely horrible. Absolutely horrible. My heart is completely broken."

The Serbian Orthodox Church, designed by architect Richard M. Upjohn and built in the early 1850s, was purchased the building from the Episcopal Diocese in New York in 1943.

In 1968, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places and given landmark status by the Landmarks Preservation Commission. At the time, the commission said that "its special character, historic significance, and aesthetic interest and value of the development, heritage, and cultural characteristics of New York make it irreplaceable."

CBS News notes that while it is yet unclear what started the fire, City Council Member Corey Johnson has called for a full investigation into the cause of the blaze.

"This is a huge loss for the community," he said. "In addition to being a place of worship, this historic building was a New York City landmark, treasured by the people" living in the neighborhood.