- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 20, 2001

New Yorkers looked up Tuesday to see an ominous billow of dark smoke rising into the skyline again as a five-alarm fire broke out at the historic Cathedral of St. John the Divine on Manhattan's Upper West Side. Two hundred of New York's bravest scrambled around 7 a.m. to the world's largest Gothic church building, where flames quickly brought part of the roof down over the three-story gift shop at the rear of the cathedral. Black smoke filled the enormous nave, whose vaulted ceilings soar 124 feet high and poured from the heavy bronze doors cast by Barbedienne, the same man who cast the Statue of Liberty.

But Tuesday was not to be a day etched only by loss and ruin. After less than three hours, Fire Commissioner Thomas Van Essen declared that his soot-covered firemen had brought the blaze under control and successfully defended the main church against the flames. While the severity of the damage to the cathedral's renowned 18th-century papal tapestries and other religious artworks is still undetermined, the extent of community dislocation, just one week before Christmas, is sure to be great. While its immediate present seems shaky, however, the future of St. John the Divine is assured. It will endure.

It always has. Opening its doors in 1941 on the day before the strike at Pearl Harbor, the Episcopal cathedral already had a bumpy history that began shortly after its cornerstone was laid in 1892. Construction delays it took more than two years (and an added donation of $500,000 from J.P. Morgan) to hit bedrock design problems, the death of an architect, World War I, the Great Depression: All impeded this ambitious project's progress. After Pearl Harbor, construction on the unfinished building ceased altogether until 1982.

While it remains technically unfinished, St. John the Divine has long been a Gothic marvel, a central place of worship and sanctuary in a frenzied city, as well as a noted venue for the performing arts. And it will be again. To a city all too used to the finality of grievous loss, this is the point to bear in mind as New Yorkers prepare to meet the new year.

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