At 11:30 p.m. on Aug. 9, dozens of firefighters and emergency medical technicians from several local fire departments were still at St. Demetrios Church on Hewlett Avenue in Merrick, though many had begun the work of returning fire hoses and first aid kits to emergency vehicles and preparing to roll out. Fire had destroyed the church’s ornate interior.
By 9 a.m. on Aug. 11, St. Demetrios was prepared to hold mass for hundreds of Greek Orthodox faithful from throughout the Merrick-Bellmore community, though the Friday-night blaze had rendered the Byzantine-style church unusable. St. Demetrios members worked for more than 12 hours that Saturday to prepare a “temporary sanctuary,” as St. Demetrios’s priest, the Rev. Nikiforos Fakinos, termed it: a large canopy with metal trusses, a wooden altar and rows of folding chairs in the church’s north parking lot.
“The beautiful people of the parish, our neighbors and friends, all came together,” Fakinos said of the Aug. 11 mass, held less than 48 hours after the fire erupted. According to officials, its cause was a candle.
“The parishioners did not want to vacate the premises,” Fakinos said. “We made the decision to build a temporary sanctuary. As long as weather permits, we will use it. Souls will be comforted, guidance and education will be offered.”
Vasilios Zarboutis, a Merrick resident and a St. Demetrios congregant, said that he was inspired by the resilience of his religious community. “What we’ve personified here is that it’s the people that make up the church rather than the bricks and cinder blocks,” Zarboutis said.
He added that church members had worked from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Aug. 10 to set up the outdoor space for services.
Fakinos said he did not know how long it would take to repair St. Demetrios, but in the meantime, the church has pledged to continue all of its planned activities. “We have to make our church beautiful again,” he said.