By Maria Rocha-Buschel
A four-alarm fire gutted a Serbian Orthodox church at 24 West 25th Street on Sunday evening, following services earlier that day that took place for Orthodox Easter. Because the services ended earlier in the afternoon, no one was inside the church at the time the fire broke out around 6:50 p.m. but the blaze left the interior of the Serbian Orthodox Cathedral of St. Sava in shambles, burning the roof off of the landmarked structure that has been in the neighborhood since 1855. FDNY said that one civilian and four firefighters were taken to Bellevue Hospital for smoke inhalation and no other injuries were reported.
Police at the scene on Monday morning said that the street would be closed until investigators could determine that the remaining part of the building still standing was structurally sound and wouldn’t collapse. The officer noted that a collapse was unlikely but the street remained closed as a precaution. Only employees working at buildings on the street were allowed past the police barricades. FDNY noted on Wednesday morning that the cause is still under investigation but the fire is considered non-suspicious.
Although an official cause has not yet been determined, the New York Post reported on Monday that members of the Orthodox community are worried that the fire was actually a coordinated attack, set in retaliation for the religion’s role in blocking the canonization of Cardinal Aloysius Stepinac, a Croatian archbishop who was reportedly a Nazi supporter and whose possible sainthood has created a rift in the Serbian and Croatian community.
The theory of a coordinated attack came about because of fires at Orthodox churches in Sydney and Melbourne Australia, as well as a fire at a church in northern Russia, all taking place not long after Easter services on Sunday. The fire at the Macedonian Orthodox Church of the Resurrection in Sydney reduced the building to rubble and the fire at Greek Orthodox church Holy Church of Annunciation of Our Lady in Melbourne was contained to the roof. The church in northern Russia, Valaam Monastery, had to be evacuated when the fire broke out during the Easter services.
Gothamist noted on Monday that Madison Equities, a luxury real estate developer, had filed a suit against the West 25th Street cathedral in December 2014, accusing St. Sava of failing to keep to an agreement signed earlier that year which stipulated that the developer would pay the church’s rent and $250,000 for improvements to the sanctuary in exchange for the 200,000 square feet of air rights above the church and the adjacent property.
The suit alleged that the church had hired a commercial broker to negotiate on their behalf, which was reportedly not disclosed when the agreement was made. St. Sava reportedly asked Madison Equities to pay a $13.5 million broker’s fee, which the developer argued was excessive and the company filed the suit to void the deal. However, a judge tossed the case out in January, ruling that the developer was actually aware of the broker’s involvement in leasing the land.
Councilmember Corey Johnson, who represents the neighborhood where the church is located, called for a full investigation into the fire on Sunday.
“My thoughts and prayers are with the Cathedral’s clergy and parishioners, who celebrated Orthodox Easter Sunday there just hours before the fire began,” Councilmember Johnson said in a statement. “This is a huge loss for the community. In addition to being a place of worship, this historic building was a New York City landmark, treasured by the people of Chelsea.”