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Flames engulf church

A freak fire tore through Norwood’s Lutheran Church of the Epiphany on Saturday, January 3, destroying the St. Stephen’s Meals soup kitchen and displacing community groups. The accidental basement blaze burst from a couch at 9:15 a.m.

Sonya Decicco, 67, a church member and volunteer, was first to the fire. She opened the empty building’s front door to a hot blast and billowing smoke.

Immediately, Decicco called 911. Firefighters arrived less than five minutes later to contain the conflagration and save the church’s 80-year old sanctuary. About 60 firefighters battled the blaze. Three sustained minor injuries. No church members or neighbors were hurt, church representatives said.

“It’s a good thing [Decicco] came along when she did,” deacon Anthony Bopp observed. “Another five minutes and we’d have lost the whole church. That’s what the fire department said.”

The church is located at 302 E. 206th Street. Bopp runs a soup kitchen from its basement, where the fire scorched tables, chairs, utensils and paper plates. Also ruined: three freezers stuffed with food.

“This was a heavy loss,” Bopp said. “We’re the only soup kitchen in Norwood.”

Despite smoke damage upstairs, the church did worship on Sunday, January 4. In fact, the Lutherans invited Ghanaian and Spanish-speaking congregations to a joint service. The Bronx Presbyterian Church of Ghana and Sowing the Seed meet in the church regularly.

“For the first time, we worshipped together,” said Bob Rainis, the church’s vicar. “To have three different Christian denominations sharing the gospel…it was phenomenal.”

St. Stephen’s Meals operates Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Bopp had no food to serve Monday, January 5. The soup kitchen could move to another church temporarily, if United Way gives Bopp the okay. United Way sponsors St. Stephen’s Meals.

The church also hosts two Alcohol Anonymous groups. They’ll meet at St. Brendan’s Catholic Church through March.

“We’re closed down for now,” Bopp said. “The basement needs a new ceiling. It’ll be two months, at least.”

German immigrants built Norwood’s Lutheran church in 1928. It’s mostly wood, with a granite façade, a pointed roof and stained glass windows. The church’s insurer sent a cleaning crew in Saturday afternoon.

“We’re thankful no one was severely injured,” Rainis said. “Our prayers are with the firefighters.”

Aside from smoke damage, the church’s sanctuary emerged unscathed.

“The firefighters tried to preserve what they could,” Bopp said. “They didn’t break any stained glass windows.”

Although the church claims 75 members, fewer than 30 worship on Sundays. It’s become multicultural in recent years. On January 5, Rainis broke into his favorite hymn. The Ghanaians followed, in their native tongue.

“Members have moved and passed away,” Bopp said. “But we’re going to rebuild. We’re going to be strong again.”

According to FDNY spokesman Jim Long, the cause of the fire is still under investigation. Fordham University operates a mentoring program out of the church’s basement.

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