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Saturday morning blaze rips through Hollis church

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A two-alarm fire gutted nearly half of a Roman Catholic church in Hollis early Saturday morning, destroying holy relics and disrupting services for 800 parishioners as well as classes the week before Easter. There were no injuries.

The fire at St. Gerard Majella Roman Catholic Church at 188-16 91st Ave. started at 3:52 a.m. Saturday in the sacristy and quickly spread to the altar, a Fire Department spokesman said. Sacred relics, including the remains of the 18th-century saint the church is named after, were destroyed, said Sister Ellen Farrell, the church’s pastoral care coordinator. No one was injured, she said.

The fire also disrupted classes at the church’s school, housed on the two floors above the altar and sacristy, Farrell said. The nearly 300 pre-kindergartners through eighth-graders were told not to return to school until next week at the earliest, she said.

The cause of the fire was still under investigation, a Fire Department spokeswoman said. Neither the Fire Department nor the church think the blaze was suspicious.

“We really don’t think it’s that,” Farrell said. “Not that it couldn’t be, but we don’t think it is.”

The report came in from a passerby who was walking past the church and used his cell phone to call the fire in, Farrell said. Nearly 100 firefighters were able to take control of the blaze by 5 a.m., a Fire Department spokeswoman said.

The fire started in the sacristy, where religious objects, including Bibles, priest’s robes, incense and a processional cross were kept, Farrell said. All the items were destroyed, leaving the church without the equipment to hold Sunday Mass, she said.

“We didn’t have anything to work with,” Farrell said.

About 800 parishioners were sent to other diocese churches in the area and the community was supportive, she said.

“The priests welcomed anybody from St. Gerard’s and extended their sympathies,” she said.

With Holy Week starting next Thursday, the church is determined to hold Easter Masses at the church even if it has to use the school auditorium, Farrell said.

“We’ll have two resurrections that day,” she said.

Although insurance adjusters have not come to evaluate the damage yet, Farrell said the repairs will be costly.

“It’s a good amount,” she said of the damage. “What used to be a room is not recognizable any more.”

Many parishioners did not know about the fire until they arrived at the church for Sunday Mass, Farrell said.

“When people were coming – some knew, some didn’t – it’s as if we were at a wake,” she said. “Some people were crying and some were hugging. It was just like what you see at a wake.”

Reach reporter Courtney Dentch by e-mail at TimesLedger@aol.com, or by phone at 229-0300, Ext. 138.

Posted 7:02 pm, October 10, 2011
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