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As Their East Village Church Burned, a Congregation Asked: How Can We Help the Women Next Door?

A fire destroyed the historic Middle Collegiate Church, and displaced residents of the even older Hopper Home shelter next door. Dec. 10, 2020.
A fire destroyed the historic Middle Collegiate Church, and displaced residents of the even older Hopper Home shelter next door. Dec. 10, 2020.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

As the historic Middle Collegiate Church burned in the East Village last Saturday, congregants who rushed to the scene leapt into action — not for themselves, but for their neighbors.

Sharing a wall with the 1891 church is an even older building that has served as the home of the Women’s Prison Association, a charity dedicated since the 1840s to improving the lives of women impacted by incarceration.

For decades, the Hopper Home Transitional Shelter has served as a refuge for formerly incarcerated women. Early Saturday, as the Second Avenue fire grew, the 22 women who lived in the shelter were forced to flee at dawn.

“I had them all put on their hoods, so that way their heads and arms wouldn’t get burned by the falling debris,” said Stephanie Arzon, a residential aide for WPA, who spotted the flames next door and guided an evacuation when the FDNY gave the go-ahead.

Outside, in near-freezing rain, the women stood watching the fast-moving blaze, many wearing slippers and pajamas.

Arzon and other staff quickly arranged for the residents to go to another WPA facility at 10th Street and Avenue B to wait and get warm.

As the morning wore on, it became clear they would not be going back to the shelter any time soon. While the flames that consumed a vacant building on the corner of East 7th Street and much of the church never reached Hopper, water from the firefighting effort and thick smoke poured in.

‘Take Care of Our Neighbors’

Middle Collegiate members hurried to the scene as they heard the news. Katrina Monzón, an East Village local, arrived after 7 a.m., as did spouses Susan Davis and Claudia Slacik who live near Gramercy Park. They quickly learned where the Hopper residents were — and that they had left home nearly empty-handed.

“We thought, well, let’s go take care of our neighbors,” said Davis. “We went and bought some stuff, and we didn’t know what really to buy.”

Slacik chimed in: “Twenty-two tubes of toothpaste. Twenty-two boxes of Kleenex. Twenty-two bottles of hand sanitizer.”

They drove to Avenue B and found the women in a room just off the building entrance, looking “the most depressed and despondent,” Davis said.

The aftermath of the fire at Middle Collegiate Church in the East Village, Dec. 10, 2020.
The aftermath of the fire at Middle Collegiate Church in the East Village, Dec. 10, 2020.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

“I walk in with these three bags of whatever, toothbrushes, and it was just — it felt so inadequate,” she said. “So I just said, ‘Well, does anybody want to go shopping?’”

Nearly everyone in the room stood up, she said, and they got to work.

For the rest of the day, Davis and Slacik, who were married at Middle Collegiate in 2012, drove the women from Hopper — a few at a time — from store to store. They bought replacements for items left inside the shelter: bras, deodorant, shoes, coats.

The couple bought so much stuff, their credit cards were flagged for fraud.

“Claudia would call about one card, I’d use another, then mine would be on fraud,” said Davis. “Then I would call for that one, and we’d use another.”

The church’s deacon fund will ultimately cover the costs of the purchases, the couple said. Friends also pitched in as they heard what was going on, including a former colleague of Davis who sent $1,000 by Venmo.

The Neighborly Thing to Do

Church member Yusuf George soon joined them, driving to the fire scene from his home in Sunnyside, Queens, after getting a text about the fire around 8:30 a.m.

Seeing flames overtake the church was “depleting,” he said. Still, jumping in to help the women next door was a no-brainer.

“I see my house burned down. And so there’s nothing I can do immediately for that. But is there a way that I can help folks around me?” he said. “That is the directive that I was on, and it was what needed to happen.”

As the congregants zig-zagged across downtown Manhattan with the women from Hopper, Monzón helped coordinate relief donations to WPA. She got in touch with a local politician, East Village businesses and other church members to get the word out.

Physical contributions — mostly clothing and toiletries — quickly filled a room at the WPA facility on Avenue B.

Almost as soon as the outpouring began, it had to be stopped. The shelter was overwhelmed. So Monzón let it be known that monetary donations would be best.

Women’s Prison Association coordinator Tracey Thomas is surrounded by donations following the fire at their East Village shelter, Dec. 6, 2020.
Women’s Prison Association coordinator Tracey Thomas is surrounded by donations following the fire at their East Village shelter, Dec. 6, 2020.
Courtesy of Women’s Prison Association

“We take it very seriously: Love thy neighbor as yourself. Actually, I think at Middle, we think ‘Love your neighbor sometimes more than you love yourself,’” said Monzón of the social justice-focused church and its “revolutionary love” ethos, preached by its senior minister, Rev. Jacqui Lewis.

“It’s not just saying, ‘This is what I have for you,’ but saying ‘What do you need from us?’” Monzón added.

The support to the shelter given by the church after the fire marks the latest in a long relationship between the two institutions, said Diana McHugh, a spokesperson for WPA. Over the years, congregants have given money, time, Christmas presents and care packages to shelter residents.

“We’ve been neighbors since the church was built in 1891. There have been plenty of residents who are part of the church community. The church has been generous — philanthropically, historically — toward WPA. Their volunteers have always been present to us,” McHugh said.

The WPA declined a request for interviews with shelter residents, citing privacy concerns.

‘It Was Reassuring’

In the days after the fire, Arzon helped sort through the mountains of donations and made sure the shelter residents were well settled in temporary housing.

“The way everybody stepped up and helped out,” she said, proved a huge relief to her and the women at Hopper.

“Despite how horrific the scenery looked the entire night, that entire morning, it was just — it was reassuring,” she said. “A small weight was lifted off my chest to know that there were so many people that cared … They heard about it, and everybody moved swiftly.”

When the women will return to Hopper Home is an open question. McHugh said WPA is waiting for access to the building, pending clearance from the Fire Department.

An FDNY spokesperson said the investigation into the cause of the fire is ongoing.

Both the shelter and the church have a long road to recovery ahead of them, and the fate of each is connected — literally.

The integrity of their shared wall may have been compromised by the fire, a challenge leaders from Middle and WPA have been speaking about in recent days, McHugh said.

Arzon has faith her residents — “very strong, independent women who have made it this far,” she said — will rebound.

“They’re going to keep striving to make their lives better, with or without the belongings in that building,” she said.

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