Fire! At the Church of Saint Luke in the Fields

The Fire

On March 6, 1981, a fire broke out in the basement of the Church of St. Luke in the Fields at 481 Hudson Street. Residents of the surrounding streets of Greenwich Village poured from their homes to see the 160-year-old church go up in flames. Built in 1821, the Federal style building had been a fixture in Greenwich Village for more than a century.

As the third oldest church in Manhattan burned to the ground, Reverend Leslie Laughlin asserted that the parish would rebuild what was lost. Laughlin told a New York Times reporter, “Everybody is coming forward and saying we're going to rebuild and it's very clear we will rebuild.”

St. Luke in the Fields: Then and Now

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St. Luke’s has been a presence in the neighborhood since the early 19th century, when Greenwich Village was the Village of Greenwich, a rural community consisting of farms and fields. Trinity Parish, the oldest church in Manhattan, loaned the funds for the construction of St. Luke’s, and even provided the property on which St. Luke’s was built. The Church was named for St. Luke, a physician and the author of the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts in the New Testament of the Bible. "In the Fields" was added because of the church's location in the country, where many city residents sought refuge from the fevers affecting those living in what is now Lower Manhattan. When it was first consecrated, the Church of St. Luke in the Fields was separated from the growing town at the foot of Manhattan by a canal that stretched across the island, crossable only at Greenwich Road. Today, Canal Street is named for that canal.

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As time passed, and the community began to change, St. Luke’s changed as well. When the community experienced an influx of dockworkers in the early 20th century, St. Luke’s worked to give them assistance and hospitality. The parish started boys’ and girls’ clubs, athletic events, and community programs long before the terms “at-risk youth” and “inner-city outreach” were in use. And in 1987, when Greenwich Village became the cultural center of the AIDS epidemic, St. Luke’s started the AIDS Project of St. Luke’s, which still ministers to the AIDS community through Saturday Evening Suppers, a weekend tea at St. Vincent’s Hospital, and a Saturday tea at the Rivington House hospice on the Lower East Side. Since 1987, St. Luke’s has served 35,000 people. And more recently, St. Luke’s began the "Church: Art, Acceptance and a Place to Be Yourself" for LGBTQA Youth, which assists an average of 40-50 young people a week with art and dance workshops as well as a hot meal and a safe place to gather.

The Response

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On the day of the fire in 1981, many of the onlookers were conscious of another damaging fire that had occurred at St. Mark's in the Bowery just three years before — one that required an extensive and expensive restoration to the second oldest church in Manhattan. However, before the next morning, two contributions, one for $5 and the other for $100, were brought to the St. Luke's parish offices at 487 Hudson Street. Before the restoration of St. Luke’s was complete, many similar donations, from parishioners and neighbors alike, would be contributed. Though the damage wrought to the building was devastating, parishioners and members of the community were much more concerned about the possible loss of St. Luke’s to the neighborhood. Florence Masek said, “I was baptized here, confirmed here, married here and my two children went to school [St. Luke’s School] here.” For many residents, St. Luke’s was an important fixture in Greenwich Village, and they were determined to do all they could to save it.

The Restoration

When the interior and roof of the historic chapel as well as the parish house were destroyed by fire, many feared that it would be the end of St. Luke’s, or at the very least, the end of St. Luke’s presence in the community. However, the parish rallied. Services and programs were held in the gymnasium of St. Luke’s School. The parish chose the architectural firm Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer, known for their restoration of early 19th century buildings, to construct the chapel and parish house. The firm later received the Albert S. Bard Award for excellence in architecture for its exceptional reconstruction of the chapel and parish house. After four years of fundraising, restoration, and construction, St. Luke’s Chapel reopened. In all, the four-year construction project cost more than $5 million. At the end of the last service held in the St. Luke’s School gym, Reverend Lucia Ballantine celebrated the finished construction by shooting a basketball. She missed, but the significance of the gesture was not lost.

Conclusion

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Throughout St. Luke’s 190 years, the parish has strived to serve its surrounding community, Greenwich Village, and the greater city. The fire, which investigators later learned was caused by a spontaneous combustion of gases in the church’s wooden framework, threatened this mission; however, the community that St. Luke’s had nurtured for so many years banded together and ensured that St. Luke’s would once again open its doors on Hudson Street to Greenwich Village.

Today, the chapel, though different than the original, recalls the early history of St. Luke’s. As time has passed and Greenwich Village has evolved, so has the Church of Saint Luke in the Fields. The additions of St. Luke’s School, the Gardens at Saint Luke in the Fields, and St. Luke’s Thrift Shop have significantly added to Hudson Street, creating an inviting and hospitable atmosphere through teaching, serenity, and charity.

Sources

1 William G. Blair, “St Luke’s Church, Ruined By Fire, Plans to Rebuild,” New York Times, March 8, 1981.

2 Blair, “St Luke’s Church, Ruined By Fire, Plans to Rebuild.”

3 Blair, “St Luke’s Church, Ruined By Fire, Plans to Rebuild.”

4 Blair, “St Luke’s Church, Ruined By Fire, Plans to Rebuild.”

5 The Church of Saint Luke in the Fields. “About,” The Church of Saint Luke in the Fields, http://www.stlukeinthefields.org/about (accessed October 23, 2011).

6 “Architecture and Worship at St. Luke’s,” historical exhibit, 1996.

7 “Welcome: Newcomer Information,” Church brochure.

8 “7 Projects Win Awards for Design,” New York Times, October, 17, 1986.

9 “Architecture and Worship at St. Luke’s,” historical exhibit, 1996.

10 The Church of Saint Luke in the Fields. "FAQ," The Church of Saint Luke in the Fields, http://www.stlukeinthefields.org/about (accessed November 2, 2011).

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