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St. John Might Close For Christmas

Firefighters try to bring under control a blaze at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, Tuesday, Dec. 18, 2001 in New York. Fire broke out Tuesday at the historic cathedral, heavily damaging an adjoining gift shop as flames shot from the six-story Episcopal church that has been under construction for more than a century. No injuries were reported.
AP
Christmas services at the fire-damaged Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine may be relocated because of lingering environmental concerns, a spokesman for the century-old church said Wednesday.

"We're trying to get back in the cathedral," spokesman Jere Ferrah said. "That is still our No. 1 option."

Earlier, the bishop, Mark Sisk, said worshippers could count on Christmas services in the cathedral. But Ferrah said church officials were awaiting final word from fire and environmental officials about whether reopening the church for the Christmas services was possible. Several other facilities have offered space to St. John's if it cannot reopen, he said.

The blaze destroyed a gift shop on Tuesday inside the cathedral, one of the largest churches in the world. It also severely damaged two 17th century tapestries and left smoke and water damage. As much as 3 inches of water covered the floor of the nave.

Two other events were already relocated because of the blaze. A Thursday concert, "A Cathedral Christmas," and a Friday performance of Handel's "Messiah" will be moved to an auditorium on cathedral grounds, Ferrah said.

As of late Tuesday, the cause of the blaze was still not known. It was reported just before 7 a.m., but fire officials suspect that it may have been burning for some time before it was discovered. The cause of the fire remained under investigation Wednesday.

Firefighters brought the fire under control after about 2½ hours and were able to confine it to the gift shop next to the nave. The shop's wooden roof collapsed.

Church workers with mops and buckets removed most of the water from the church. The high altar, a slightly elevated section at the rear of the church, did not appear to be damaged by water, but it was clouded in smoke after the fire.

Sisk said the damaged tapestries were two of the church's six Barberini tapestries depicting the life of Jesus Christ. They were made on the official papal looms.

"This is a big part of my world, taking care of these tapestries," said a distraught Marlene Eidelhut, director of textile conservation at the Manhattan church.

Farrah said he was concerned about the damage to the tapestries, but added that the stone structure of the church was "indestructible."

Large enough to contain two football fields, the cathedral boasts more than 150 stained glass windows. Some painted-over windows with no extraordinary value were damaged, but not the stained glass windows, Farrah said.

The first stone of the historic gothic cathedral was laid in 1892. Sections have been added or expanded over the past century, but construction has never been completed. Scaffolding still surrounds an incomplete tower at the church's southwest corner.

Each day, thousands of people visit the cathedral, which hosts 30 services a week, Farrah said. Two Masses are held on Christmas Day, each typically attracting as many as 5,000 people.

Farrah said the gift shop sold books, crats, jewelry and other goods, generating about $1 million a year to support church functions.

The building is in the Morningside Heights neighborhood on the edge of Harlem, a few blocks from Columbia University. The Encyclopedia of New York City describes it as the nation's largest cathedral.

By Diego Ibarguen
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