Yaphank Presbyterian Church (YPC), located in the southeastern region of central Suffolk County on Long Island, was condemned after a fire raced through the building’s interior in the early-morning hours of Sunday, Dec. 8.
According to reports in Newsday, the fire started around 2 a.m., and it took approximately 75 firefighters from nine departments nearly two and a half hours to bring the blaze under control at the church.
The fire is under investigation by multiple agencies, but investigators told church officials the likely cause was a hole in a section of furnace pipe that allowed heat and fire to escape, igniting the blaze.
“The sanctuary is gone. It’s just a shell now,” Yaphank Pastor Glorya Johnson said, noting that the boiler where the fire started was located in a kitchen area of the partially submerged church basement and destroyed an office and fellowship/meeting place downstairs along with the sanctuary. She added that the back side of the building where the organ was located is gone, though the other three walls and steeple remain mostly intact.
Johnson received a call that the church, part of the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s Long Island Presbytery, was ablaze around 3 a.m. Sunday. She said her mind raced back to a time growing up in Toledo, Ohio, when the church she worshipped at was set on fire.
“I understand how many of our members would ask why this is happening to their church,” she said. “I’ve been there before.”
Johnson started calling members early Sunday, letting most of them know ahead of time what had happened before they arrived for the worship service. Many of the approximately 50 members of the church – built in 1851 – already knew what had happened. They met in the community building located behind their fire-ravaged sanctuary.
As bad as it was to see the orange glow of flames during hours of darkness, Johnson said it looked even worse in the light of day with busted windows, gaping holes in walls and charred black marks on the white exterior of the structure.
Observing that members were “devastated” by what happened and were going through a period of “grieving,” Johnson was thankful that congregants still have a place to worship as they continue through the season of Advent.
“We’re fortunate we have another building on the property,” she said. “It’s not like we’re just out in the cold with no place to gather for worship. It’s going to take time to get over this.”
No human, criminal activity
Johnson and other members had been at the church Saturday night just hours before the fire broke out after serving coffee and tea for Yaphank’s Christmas parade, which went by the church and included a float from YPC that was a replica of the 162-year-old facility.
Johnson said there were concerns that maybe a light had not been turned off or some other electrical issue had not been addressed that might have led to the fire. Those fears were alleviated by fire investigators.
“They told us there was no human error at all, which was comforting,” Johnson said.
Also comforting was knowledge that there was nothing to point to any criminal activity after graffiti had been found on the church and several other buildings in the community in previous days.
Members had planned to gather Sunday afternoon to trim the tree and place other decorations in the sanctuary for the Christmas season. The only decorating that had been done was placement of the Advent wreath.
Looking to the future
Johnson said the rallying cry for Yaphank’s congregants has been one proclaiming that people make the church, and members need to look to the future that God has in store for them.
“This is a building. The church is its people, that faith community of believers,” she said. “Advent is a time to celebrate the second coming of Christ, and maybe this is God saying He wants a second coming for us. This certainly can be a celebration of a new beginning for this congregation. We need to focus on what lies ahead instead of dwelling on the past. This building has served its purpose. Now, with God’s grace, we move forward and build it back better than before.”
The building is insured, and Johnson indicated that YPC will continue to worship and share God’s Word in the community it has served for more than 160 years.
“We have to look to the future. Just as we await the second coming of Christ, we will look to a second coming of Yaphank,” Johnson said. “We have been here for 160 years, and we’ll be here for another 160. God is in control. He’ll walk with us through this whole process.”