Rising from the Ashes

A Manhattan cathedral destroyed by fire offers lessons for Notre Dame

Members of the Serbian and Greek Orthodox communities participate in a Good Friday procession on April 26 in Chelsea.

Eleven days after a fire decimated Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, Bishop Irenej Dobrijevic of the Serbian Orthodox Church stood before a standing-room only crowd for Good Friday service at St. Eleftherios Church in Chelsea. The Greek Orthodox church has been hosting the Serbian congregation since their cathedral burned down on Easter Sunday in 2016.

Today, the gutted skeleton of the Serbian Orthodox Cathedral of St. Sava casts a shadow over the chic cafés facing it on West 25thStreet in Manhattan’s NoMad district. Emptied of debris and veiled with nets and scaffolding, the ravaged cathedral cuts a forlorn silhouette. If St. Sava’s experience is an indicator of the challenges to rebuilding a historic church, Notre Dame faces a long road. Still, addressing the combined Greek and Serbian faithful, the bishop offered a message of rebirth and “contemporary miracles.”

Located three blocks north of the Flatiron Building, St. Sava’s was built in 1850 as an Episcopalian chapel. The renowned architect Richard Upjohn designed it in Neo-Gothic style, and the structure was built in “perfect medieval construction,” according to the bishop.

Though more than 500 years younger than Notre Dame, St. Sava’s resembled the French cathedral slightly, with tall spires and towering stained-glass windows framed by floor-to-ceiling, pointed stone arches. When construction began on Notre Dame in 1163, pointed arches were the cutting edge of design. They distributed a structure’s weight so well that architects found they could build higher, sleeker buildings than ever before.

The Serbian Orthodox Church purchased the building and the parish home next door in the 1940s and renamed it for St. Sava, the patron saint of Serbia. As part of its re-consecration, the relics of a martyr were enshrined inside the altar. Precisely whose relics they are seems lost to history.

When the cathedral caught fire in 2016, the roof collapsed, and the interior of the building was completely gutted. Mountains of rubble fell into the bottom of the four-story structure. Since the vibrations caused by heavy machinery could have toppled the remaining walls, all the detritus had to be removed by hand, a process that took months of hard labor.

As the bishop reminded churchgoers in his on Good Friday sermon, on the very last day of rubble removal, contractors unearthed the relics from the cathedral’s altar. Though the altar had been severely damaged, the saintly remains were in pristine condition.

Officially, the cause of the fire was attributed to mishandling of candles from the Easter services earlier that day, but Bishop Irenej expressed skepticism of this theory over lentil soup in the community room of St. Eleftherios following the Friday service.

Three years after a fire nearly destroyed it on Easter Sunday, the Cathedral of St. Sava may soon have a new roof.

Bishop Irenej was appointed to run the diocese of the Eastern United States a month after the St. Sava’s fire. In a strange twist of fate, at the time of the blaze, he was serving as Bishop of Australia and New Zealand, where two Orthodox churches also caught fire within the same 24-hour period as St. Sava’s.

St. Eleftherios, St. Sava’s interim home, itself caught fire in 1973, the third church to go up in a spate of suspected arsons that summer.

Thanks to its stone arches, the shell of St. Sava’s still stands, despite the roof collapse. The frames of each arched window extend underground, meeting to form an inverted vault – like the bottom of a ship – in the cathedral’s crypt. The exterior walls were quickly stabilized after the disaster and deemed sound by the New York City Department of Buildings.

Having recently settled with its insurance provider, the cathedral is now developing the masterplan for renovating the compound. On Easter Week three years after the fire, church leaders were hopeful that construction of a new roof would begin sometime in May.

Before it burnt down, St. Sava’s was a focal point for New York’s Serbian community, which includes roughly 9,000 New Yorkers who self-identify Serbian ancestry, according to the 2015 American Community Survey.

The cathedral drew crowds, both religious and secular, with frequent concerts by visiting musicians held in the parish home.

“Everyone who came from Yugoslavia, Serbia, went there,” says Milan Knescelec, a longtime parishioner, recounting how he met Charles Bronson’s stunt double, a fellow Serb, at a cathedral concert and later went to work for him as a flower salesman.

“For us that is really important. We are counting the days,” reiterates Radoslav Drincic, who has been a member of St. Sava’s for over 30 years. He hopes that once a new roof is installed, the congregation will be able to gather at St. Sava’s for special occasions.

Though deeply grateful to the Greek Orthodox church for welcoming them, the Serbian congregation aches to return to their own space.

“We’re a bit homeless,” concedes the bishop, gesturing towards the corner of the community room in St. Eleftherios, where the Serbian community’s altar furnishings sit neatly piled.

While the Greek and Serbian congregations come together upstairs in the sparkling sanctuary for important services like the Good Friday liturgy, most Sundays St. Sava’s members meet downstairs in the bland community room for mass in Serbian.

To keep the cathedral’s cultural legacy alive, St. Sava’s has partnered with the Serbian Association of New York in Queens to host a few cultural events like the ones they used to hold on-site, says cathedral trustee Maria Mirkovich, though the distance makes it complicated.

Asked what advice he would give to his counterparts in Paris, Bishop Irenej replied decisively, “You must rebuild it as it was.”

After all, in a building as in a community, the foundation is everything.


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