Epiphany looks back on blaze that destroyed original church

Firefighters put out the fire that destroyed the Epiphany Church’s original location in 1963. Fifty years ago, the church reopened in a new location. (Town & Village photo)

Firefighters put out the fire that destroyed the Epiphany Church’s original location in 1963. Fifty years ago, the church reopened in a new location. (Town & Village photo)

By Maria Rocha-Buschel

Epiphany Church on Second Avenue will be celebrating a number of milestone anniversaries in the next year, beginning with the 50th anniversary this coming week of the congregation’s reopening after a devastating fire. The blaze gutted the church only five days before Christmas in 1963, on December 20, destroying a landmarked building that had been in the neighborhood since 1870. The church was able to reopen exactly three years later in 1966.

“The new building didn’t even have pews for that first mass, just folding chairs, but they wanted to have the service on the same day as the fire to show how quickly the community came together,” parishioner Richard Sawicki said of the new building’s reopening.

Sawicki, who currently lives on Second Avenue across from Epiphany, was not a member of the church at the time of the fire but joined the congregation not long after the new building opened, and has been interested in the church’s history for a number of years.

Through fundraising efforts, Rt. Rev. Msgr. William Farricker, the church’s pastor at the time, along with the help of parishioners, was able to raise the money needed to rebuild. T&V reported at the time that insurance on the building amounted to $700,000, which was about $1.3 million short of what was necessary for construction. A pamphlet by Epiphany on the dedication of the new building noted that clergy from the church launched the fundraising campaign during a ceremony at Immaculate Conception almost immediately after the fire.

“(The funding) was, for the most part, from the members of the church themselves,” Sawicki said of the effort. “Team captains were responsible for soliciting households to see what they could contribute but there were also some contributions from merchants in the neighborhood. It was a big community effort and it came together really quickly.”

As Town & Village reported following the blaze, fire marshals had taken a man named Oliver Penn into custody because he admitted that he was in the church prior to the fire. He said that he had been drinking and didn’t remember if he had set fire to a confessional booth but that it was “possible.”

He was brought to Bellevue for observation and was a former patient in state mental institutions. The pamphlet from Epiphany on the dedication of the new building noted that the fire was first detected on the bitterly cold afternoon when children were leaving a basement Christmas party at the church.

The five-alarm fire occurred during the evening rush hour and tied up traffic for a number of blocks. Sunday services for Epiphany were held temporarily inside the Metropolitan Life Auditorium at East 23rd Street and Park Avenue South, and daily masses were recited at the Catholic Charities Building on East 22nd Street at Lexington Avenue. Sawicki said that parishioners also occasionally met at a furniture store on East 23rd Street and a drugstore on East 20th.

Other noteworthy anniversaries coming up for the church are related to the building’s reopening, with the formal dedication taking place 50 years ago next May and the 50th anniversary of the new pipe organ happening next fall. Another big celebration for the church, although unrelated to the rebuilding process, will be the 150-year anniversary for the congregation in January 2018.

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