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Fire devastates New York church’s fellowship hall, but spares historic sanctuary

Newburgh’s Calvary Presbyterian Church vows to rebuild fellowship hall, the heart of its community ministry

by Rich Copley | Presbyterian News Service

A fire early Thursday morning did heavy damage to the fellowship hall at Calvary Presbyterian Church in Newburgh, New York. The facility served as a community center to the neighborhood. (Photo by Sue Young |

LOUISVILLE — The fellowship hall at Calvary Presbyterian Church in Newburgh, New York is the heart of the community ministry of the 162-year old congregation just over an hour north of New York City.

In addition to church gatherings, it hosts an annual back-to-school event including more than a thousand free meals and haircuts, the local Habitat for Humanity MLK lunch, the Newburgh Urban Farm and Food Initiative, a rural migrant ministry, and Black United Growers, to name a few groups.

“The fellowship hall is a community center,” longtime church member and bell choir director Sue Young said on Friday morning, noting a community dinner in the hall the last Saturday of every month.

Early Thursday morning, that fellowship hall went up in flames in a blaze that destroyed the church addition and most of its contents while completely sparing its 162-year-old sanctuary, which was the first United States church designed by acclaimed church architect Frederick Clarke Withers. According to the church’s history page, Thomas Edison personally persuaded the church’s trustees to make it the first electrified church building in New York State.

“If you don’t believe in miracles, you may want to visit this historic church in Newburgh that survived this devastating fire,” reporter Macy Egeland said, leading her coverage of the fire for Westchester’s News12.

“I thought of Notre Dame,” Pastor J. Edward Lewis Sr. said, recalling the call around 12:45 a.m. Thursday telling him the church was on fire. “I got there and asked what the situation was, and the fire captain said they were holding the fire in the fellowship hall and keeping it away from sanctuary. I walked away and praised God.”

The pastor of Calvary Presbyterian Church, J. Edward Lewis Sr., said when he heard from a fire captain  that the blaze had been kept away from the church’s historic sanctuary, “I walked away and praised God.” (Photo by Sue Young |

While the historic sanctuary was saved, the fellowship hall will have to be completely rebuilt.

“This fire is an opportunity to restore, renew, rebuild, and purify,” said Lewis, who is also on the local Presbyterian Committee on the Self-Development of People.

The pastor said he was already encouraging discussion about how to make a rebuilt fellowship hall a green building with features like solar panels and tailor it to better serve the communities with which Calvary collaborates.

“We want to bring this building into the 21st century,” Lewis said.

The church is accepting donations through its website, which is here. Presbyterian Disaster Assistance has offered assistance to support the continuation of the church’s ministry.

Click here to contribute to Presbyterian Disaster Assistance’s efforts

And the ministry did not miss a beat, with bell rehearsals taking place Thursday night at nearby Union Presbyterian Church.

At this point, investigators believe that a wiring issue near the stage in fellowship hall at Calvary Presbyterian Church in Newburgh, New York, is most likely the cause of a fire early Thursday morning that heavily damaged fellowship hall but spared the church’s historic sanctuary. (Photo by Sue Young |

The cause of the fire has not been precisely determined, but Young and Lewis say investigators believe it was a wiring issue near the stage. A casualty of the fire was a Tiffany stained-glass window Young, who is a stained-glass designer, says she will work to rebuild, incorporating parts of the old window.

This week, services will be held across the street at Best Temple Church of God in Christ, as the sanctuary did sustain smoke damage, and time is needed for cleanup. Young said the congregation hopes to be back in its sanctuary for Easter services on April 12.

The sanctuary was saved, all involved say, by a thick wall between the fellowship hall and the sanctuary, which kept the fire at bay. Lewis described the sanctuary as “a tinderbox” with lots of wood and paper, and plenty of air for a fire to breathe, if it had gotten in there.

“That wall was a fortress from the fire,” said Young, who choked up several times discussing the situation. “You can stand there and see, on one side total devastation. On the other side, it’s perfect.”

Give to One Great Hour of Sharing to enable Presbyterian Disaster Assistance to respond quickly to catastrophic events.

Presbyterian Disaster Assistance and the Presbyterian Committee on the Self-Development of People are Compassion, Peace & Justice Ministries of the Presbyterian Mission Agency.

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