Blaze Severely Damaged St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church

MERRICK, N.Y. (CBSNewYork) — A large Long Island congregation was without a church Sunday after a fire, but members were not letting the damage deter their faith.

As CBS 2’s Janelle Burrell reported, the fire broke out Friday night at St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church, at 2421 Hewlett Ave. in Merrick. Flames could be seen shooting through the roof.

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Once the blaze was extinguished, the once-ornate church entrance was left blackened and charred. Parishioners were overwhelmed with emotion.

“It was unbelievable,” said church board member George Karadakis, “unbelievable.”

“Shock,” said pastor assistant Alex Exarchou.

“Upset – I cry, I cry,” said church member Helen Papayannakos.

Papayannakos was one of the founding members of the church where the fire raged.

Firefighters navigated their way through the dark, smoky church, salvaging all the precious artifacts they could.

But the flames – started by a lit candle inside – tore through and left a path of smoky debris and water damage.

“The hall that we see here — it’s all destroyed. The upstairs is destroyed,” Karadakis said.

But what has remained intact is members’ faith. With no sanctuary to gather Sunday, they brought their service to a tent set up in the church parking lot.

The faithful were determined not to let the fire stop their day of fellowship and worship. Papayannakos said she has never missed a Sunday at the church, and that has not changed.

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“Every Sunday — even holidays,” she said. “I love my church. I love my God.”

“It doesn’t matter what tragedy,” Exarchou added. “There’s nothing to step in the way to stop us.”

Contractors estimated that it would take four months to completely rebuild, and in the meantime, nearby churches and synagogues have stepped up — offering their own facilities for the congregation to use.

“After tragedy, the community came back together,” Karadakis said.

It will cost millions of dollars to restore the church and the delicate iconography – an important part of the Greek Orthodox faith.

But congregants said price is no object.

“The Virgin Mary — everything that we believe — it’s here, so that’s why it’s important,” Karadakis said. “It doesn’t matter how much it costs.”

More than 400 families belong to the church. Leaders expect to hold services in the parking lot when it is warm, and then move to nearby facilities that offered up temporary space, while the church is being rebuilt.

Investigators said the fire was accidental. No one was injured.

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