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Devastating New York City fire 'crushes' historic progressive church built in 1800s

A six-alarm fire broke out early Saturday morning in New York City, destroying several buildings, including a women's shelter and one of New York City's oldest, most historic and most progressive churches. 

Middle Collegiate Church, located in the East Village, is home to New York's Liberty Bell, which was rung in 1776 to celebrate the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and rings to commemorate the inauguration and death of every U.S. president. 

Over the past year, the church has donated to Black Lives Matter programming and funded grants to help people with rent or mortgage payments, according to its website. The church also claims to be "one of the leading multicultural, multiracial congregations" in the U.S. and that it stands "firmly" for LGBTQ+ equality, is anti-racist and believes "firmly in the power of women to heal our world." 

The New York City Fire Department said when they arrived at the scene, they knew it "was going to be a big operation." Four firefighters received minor injuries while containing the spread, according to FDNY assistant chief John Hodgens. No deaths have been reported. 

The FDNY told CBS News on Saturday evening that the cause of the fire is still under investigation, but that there is "extensive damage." There was a three-alarm electrical fire at the same location in February caused by building wiring, but the FDNY said Saturday's fire is "unrelated." 

Reverend Jacqui Lewis said that the church is "devastated and crushed that our beloved physical sanctuary" was burned, but that "no fire can stop revolutionary love." 

"We know that God does not cause these kinds of tragedies but is present with us and to us as we grieve, present in the hugs and prayers of loved ones," Lewis said. 

The church has been conducting services digitally since March, and Lewis said it will continue to do so. 

"We pray for the first responders. We pray for our neighbors who are also affected by this fire. And we covet your prayers as we grieve," she said." 

Photos of the aftermath show the Tiffany stained glass that has long decorated the building completely shattered. The inside of the building appears to be gutted, and the roof has disappeared. 

Benjamin Perry, a minister at the church, said he is "too devastated" and "heartbroken" to convey how he feels about the building the church was housed in, but said the congregation's "love is too fierce, too bold, too brilliant to be consumed by any flame."

"It feels like someone I love has died," he said. 

Workers at Middle Collegiate tweeted that "church is not a building, but buildings matter. This is home."

"To our incredible congregation: Cry. Mourn. Howl. And know: God is weeping with us. But like a phoenix, we will rise from these ashes," Middle Collegiate tweeted. "Resurrection will always have the final word."

Many followers of the church quickly tweeted the toll of the loss, many pointing to the church's role in providing addiction recovery services. 

"It was a refuge to countless people trying to find peace in their lives," one person tweeted. "To say that it was a pillar in the community is an understatement."

The fire also devastated a women's shelter next door that has stood side-by-side with Middle Collegiate Church since it was built in the 1800s. 

The Women's Prison Association's Hopper Home, which was built in 1874 after a fire destroyed its first location, had to evacuate its 15 residents when the fire broke out. The home is a single-women shelter for those who have a history of, or at risk of, involvement with the criminal legal system. The association provides the women with shelter, workforce development, employment services and housing services. 

Olga Rodriguez, who works at the shelter, told CBS New York that the fire took over the shelter "in minutes." 

"It was very scary, and the ladies were running in their slippers, in their bathrobes, in their pajamas. They were sleeping," she said, adding that she's not sure what will happen if the building is deemed unsafe.

"These ladies have gone through a lot," she said. "They don't need to go through this, too."

Diana McHugh, director of communications for the association, told CBS News that everyone is OK, but women had to leave behind personal belongings, including phones and clothes. 

"It's a huge historical loss, but people matter more," she said.

The association tweeted earlier that it is awaiting news about the structural integrity of the building and the extent of the smoke damage, but McHugh said on Saturday afternoon that "given the extent of the damage, it's not likely" they will be allowed back into the building tonight. At the time of the call with the association on Saturday, McHugh said it seems as though the third and fourth floors of the building have the most damage, but they have not been able to enter the building to determine the full extent. 

The women, who were soaking wet from standing in the rain this morning after being evacuated, have been temporarily relocated to a nearby family shelter in Alphabet City. Residents at the family shelter provided the women with food, blankets and dryers for their clothes. 

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After a fire broke out Saturday morning, more than a dozen shelter residents at the Women's Prison Association's Hopper Home were forced to evacuate. The community quickly donated dozens of bags of clothing to help.  Women's Prison Association

McHugh said, however, that the association is expecting high costs because of the fire. 

"We'll be OK, but it will certainly have an impact on us, especially mid-pandemic. This has already been a very difficult time for our residents, just from a safety perspective and a mental health perspective."

By Saturday night, McHugh said "safe and appropriate sleeping arrangements" had been made for the residents. Despite their own loss today, she said Middle Collegiate church members took the residents shopping for personal care items, and the community has donated so much clothing that the organization cannot currently accept anymore. Both the church and WPA are accepting donations to rebuild. 

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