Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen

Wendy’s Story: Remembering the Fire

In Uncategorized on October 18, 2017 at 2:09 pm

Wendy Shepherd

The Great Fire of 1990

It was Monday in Holy Week, April 9, 1990. I had been working at Holy Apostles for two years. It was a lovely early spring day and I was busy preparing the Easter bulletins. Around 4 PM the doorbell rang and someone said that they saw smoke coming from our newly installed slate roof. Workmen were up on the 28th Street side of the building working with an acetylene torch. I called down to our then Operations Manager, Scott Wing, who said he would go and check it out. There had been an earlier issue, but the workmen told Scott that they had stopped the small area that had sparked. Reassured that all would be well, and feeling a bit beleaguered from preparing materials for Holy Week services, we left the office for the evening.

After I left, someone passing by the 28th Street side of the building reported in to the folks at worship: “Hey you better leave your building is on fire!” They evacuated the service and the AA meeting in the mission house and the alarms to the Fire Department were called in. The fire had reignited under the area where our organ sits today. I’ve seen picture of folks standing outside watching the flames eat away at the roof.

I did not find out about the fire until about 9 PM that night on the evening news when the newscaster stated that a Chelsea Church had burned. Uh-oh, I thought. Could it be Holy Apostles? Why yes, that was the picture I saw come up on the screen. Ten minutes later our Director of Administration, Father David Norgard, called, asking staff to come in the next day.

I arrived in the morning and was shocked to see a gaping hole in the side of the church. So many of the priceless stained glass windows had been damaged, including both of the rose windows. One of the windows in my office had been broken.

It was cold in the office. We worked without electricity – but Con Edison was on site to get us powered back up. The Salvation Army donated some food to use to operate the soup kitchen. We got partial power to the building restored by the afternoon – enough to serve our guests. Many folks dropped by to express their condolences over the fire. One person brought us flowers. The night of the fire, someone in the Penn South Houses next door had offered to provide shelter for some of our vestments, which were rescued before the smoke or water could damage them.

That afternoon, Father Bill Greenlaw corralled the staff and told us that, yes the fire was bad and we’d lost a lot, but the vestry was resolved, as were the parishioners, that we would rebuild and resume worshiping fully at Holy Apostles, as well as continue the work of the soup kitchen. By Wednesday we had full power in the building – thank you Con Edison!

Four years later on Saturday, April 23, 1994, with a procession from our temporary home at the General Theological Seminary led by Bishop Grein up Ninth Avenue, the Church of the Holy Apostles returned to worship at 296 Ninth Avenue. During the restoration planning meetings it had been decided that we would redesign the interior without reinstalling the church pews to create a more flexible worship space and a dining room for our soup kitchen guests. The soup kitchen began using its glorious new dining room in May of 1994. We also had a lovely reception in late May for the fire fighters who helped to save our building.

Restoring the Stained Glass Windows

Raymond Clagnan (formerly of Rambusch Studios – an eminent stained glass studio) came to work for Holy Apostles during our restoration. His workshop was located in the choir loft. Ray, Nancy Howell, Bruce Gutelius and one intern, Dana Legg, were tasked with putting together the jigsaw puzzle of glass shards left after the fire. They did an exemplary job of restoring the many church windows, matching stained glass in some of the shards tiny indeed. They also fashioned the windows in our narthex – one of the best recycling projects ever, using all of the pieces that could not be fitted into the restored windows to create the new ones.

Soup Kitchen Window PaneRay’s father, Bruno Clagnan, came by to visit his son and our in-house “glass shop” and liked the work we were doing for the hungry guests who come to our door every weekday. Bruno was also a stained-glass designer and gifted us with an original design, honoring not only the work of the soup kitchen, but also the craftsmen and women who helped to restore our fire-damaged church. The window was installed shortly after the restoration was complete and opened as the dining space for our guests. You’ll notice that there is no end date on the stained glass – that is because we continue to serve today, and have only ceased operation in the event of a shelter order from the city of New York.


–As told by Wendy Shepherd, Senior Administrator



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