Parishioners of a Philadelphia Ukrainian Orthodox church say the four-alarm fire that destroyed millions of dollars in furniture and artifacts and left a gaping hole in the center of the historic building also revealed a miracle.
"The fire was blazing, so when we saw the fire, we thought everything burned," Saint Mary the Protectress Ukrainian Orthodox Church treasurer and parishioner Pasha Prasko said. "But now that we can see inside, we looked at it and said it’s amazing so many icons are still there."
Although a large portion of the church’s roof collapsed and more than 100 firefighters doused the building in water to tame the blaze, several icons remained untouched by the flames at the historic house of worship in the East Oak Lane section of the city on Sunday.
"It's a holy place, you know, and it's just not damaged the way we thought it would be," Prasko said. "We even talked about it yesterday and said it would be a miracle if her icon would be saved; and here it is, saved. I think it’s a miracle."
According to local historian Marita Krivda Poxon, in the Ukrainian Orthodox community, Saint Mary the Protectress is recognized as the protector of all Ukrainian people. A large painting of the Protectress and several other artifacts could be seen from the front door of the burned building in what appeared to be good condition.
"The church has a large icon, and in the center of it is the Saint Mary the Protectress herself. Apparently she was the saint in the Ukraine that protected the people of the country of the Ukraine," Poxon said.
"I think it’s a miracle that a few of the icons survived because they are mostly made of wood. I could only say that for believers they'll believe that it miraculously survived the fire; I mean the church burned, but her icon survived, and the congregation will survive. That's what it means to me."
Philadelphia Firefighter Arthur Davis said he's never seen anything like it before.
"Not one of those pictures caught on fire; not the ones on the wall, not the ones on the stage, not one of them was damaged," Davis said.
"What happened was it started on the roof, the fire. But it's still amazing that with the collapse and all, this stuff is not burned. They could take it right off the wall; a lot of the pictures are still on the wall, the glass isn't broken or nothing. When it comes to fires, I've seen it all, but I've never seen nothing like this before."
At one point, 125 firefighters and 33 engines were on the scene trying to get the fire under control. The cause of the fire has not yet been identified, but officials believe it was electrical.
Father Taras Naumenko, pastor of St. Vladimir Ukrainian Orthodox Cathedral on 5th and Independence Street, says his parish will be supporting St. Mary's members while its leaders work to determine a plan forward.
"Their congregation will be holding their services at my parish until they figure out their future," Naumenko said.
When asked what he thinks the future could hold for St. Mary's, he said, "I think it’s too soon to even think about what their future will be."
John Prasko is chair of the parish board. He says the church is considering starting a fund to raise money, but says he's still unsure of any exact plans for rebuilding.
"Tomorrow we will have a meeting with the board to see what we will do," he said. "At that time we will have to make several decisions about moving and rebuilding, but I don't know exactly what they'll be yet."
Poxon says any attempt to rebuild would be difficult because of the historic elements of the church.
"The interior could never be rebuilt the way it was," Poxon said. "My hope is that they don't tear it down, that they don't bulldoze it and somehow portions of it can be salvaged and rebuilt because it’s a beautiful building. There are just so few stone masons that could even do the work to rebuild here."
Firefighters were still on the scene this afternoon removing large debris from the premises. Davis says church leaders should be allowed to enter the building to retrieve artifacts and mementos sometime this evening.