In the early hours of Saturday morning, a fire raged through the historic structure of Middle Collegiate Church, now known as Middle Church, in the East Village. The fire originated in a vacant building at 48 East 7th Street. When Untapped New York visited the site on Monday morning, firefighters were working to demolish the building adjacent to the church, which also caught fire. NYPD cars blocked off many streets around the scene. The cause of the fire is still unknown, but what is known is that the sanctuary of the 1892 stone building has been destroyed. Middle Collegiate Church is one of the oldest congregations in America and is home to one of its oldest bells. The New York Liberty Bell, which hangs in the church’s belfry, pre-dates the Philadelphia Liberty Bell by twenty-five years and has rung out over the streets of New York City for many momentous occasions over the past three centuries.
Building next to Middle Collegiate Church being demolished, FDNY on scene to put out smoulders. You can smell the smoke in the air for blocks. Story coming on https://t.co/G9ZgFkdJax pic.twitter.com/PWm0nrfjDA
— Michelle Young (@UntappedMich) December 7, 2020
According to Rev. Dr. Ernest R. Palen, minister of the church in 1959 and an authority on the bell’s history as reported by The New York Times, the New York Liberty Bell was cast in Amsterdam in 1729. That same year, the first Middle Collegiate Church building was constructed on Nassau Street between Cedar and Liberty Streets. The Times reports that the bell, a gift from the family of Abraham De Peyster forged with silver from coins donated by citizens of Amsterdam, sailed to New York and was delivered by ox cart two years after it was cast. There is an inscription written on it in Dutch which partly reads, “A legacy to the Low Dutch Church of New York.”
The church as it appeared in May 2020
An interior view of Middle Church from a panel hosted by Historic Districts Council in 2009, Photo Courtesy of Historic Districts Council
Etchings on the bell carved by a former bellman with the initials W.H. list the dates of historic events the bell has tolled for. July 9th, 1776, the day the Declaration of Independence was signed, is marked with one of those etchings. One of the earliest events the bell rang out for was the acquittal of John Peter Zenger in 1735, a decision that led to our constitutional right to freedom of the press. Zenger’s case was tried at the original Federal Hall building. The bell has peeled for every president’s inauguration and death since George Washington, and you can hear it chime for monumental New York events such as the remembrance of September 11th.
Update: The New York Liberty Bell is safe! In the immediate aftermath of the fire, the fate of the bell was unknown. MIddlechurch and the New York City Department of Buildings reported on Monday, December 14th that the bell was spared from the fire. Untapped New York has reached out to Middle Church for an update. Sadly lost in the Middle Church fire were many stained glass Tiffany windows and a large Tiffany skylight dome. As seen in the photograph above, the adjacent building has been demolished, and an entire wall and the roof of the church have been destroyed.
Our bell will ring again, and our love is still ringing. pic.twitter.com/BLofkL4HmT
— Middle Church (@middlechurch) December 13, 2020
A nearby building that housed a single women’s shelter run by the Women’s Prison Association (WPA) also caught fire. The home was located inside the historic Hopper House at 110 Second Avenue, a townhouse built in the 1830s. Twenty-two women who called the landmarked building home have been temporarily relocated. You can donate to their rehabilitation efforts here. The Middle Church fire is the latest tragedy to plague this section of the East Village. Just down Second Avenue and across the street, a gas explosion killed two people in 2015.
Middle Collegiate Church is the oldest congregation of the Collegiate Churches of New York. Organized in 1628, the congregation was officially established in 1696 by a royal charter from King William III of England. Now a champion for progressive ideals, the church acknowledges and reckons with the darker parts of its past. In 2009, the church apologized to descendants of the Lenape for unfair treatment of the Native Americans from whom the original church land was purchased in 1628. Whether Muslim or Jewish, Catholic or Buddhist, all religious denominations are welcome at the church’s Sunday celebrations, not services. The church supports the LGBTQ community and movements such as Black Lives Matter and the fight against climate change.
Middle Church is currently fundraising to rebuild their sanctuary, and you can help by making a donation. Rev. Jacqui, the Senior Minister for Public Theology and Transformation, said in a statement on the church’s website, “We are devastated and crushed that our beloved physical sanctuary at Middle Collegiate Church has burned. And yet no fire can stop Revolutionary Love.”