A more than 160-year-old Long Island church was gutted by a fire that blazed through the sanctuary hours before Sunday's service, yet congregants still gathered and gave thanks that no one was hurt.
The fire, which was reported around 2 a.m., sent smoke pouring from the windows and snaking past the steeple of the Yaphank Presbyterian Church as flames consumed the sanctuary. Once the fire was doused, what were once stained-glass windows were empty spaces, and the building was a charred shell.
"The walls are there, but nothing is there inside," the Rev. Glorya Johnson said by phone later Sunday. Church leaders were still assessing the extent and cost of the damage, she said.
Investigators determined that there was nothing criminal about the fire, and that graffiti spotted on a church wall and other nearby buildings a few days ago had nothing to do with the blaze, the Suffolk County Police Department said.
It appears a heating system problem sparked the conflagration in the wooden floor of the church building, which dates to 1851, Johnson said.
While it's unclear how long the problem might have been brewing, Johnson said no one smelled smoke when the church welcomed visitors Saturday evening during Yaphank's Christmas parade.
The church has about 50 members, some of whom convened for a 9 a.m. service in a community-events building on the church grounds.
Marjorie Nicodemus was stunned when she saw the damage at the church she has attended for over 40 years, she told Newsday.
"I got out of the car and started crying," she said.
But as church members absorbed what had happened, they also thanked God that no one had been in the building during the blaze or injured fighting it, Johnson said.
"The main thing is: The church is a building, but the real church is the community of faith, of people," she said.