Basement Prayers Bring Solace to Church Devastated by Sandy


The parishioners of St. George Orthodox Church aren’t used to sitting on rows of plastic chairs for three hours on Sunday morning. They aren’t accustomed to crowding into another church’s basement, or conducting mass in unfamiliar surroundings. But for the past three weeks, they’ve had no choice.

Superstorm Sandy battered and flooded the Indian Orthodox Church located a block from the ocean on Staten Island’s south shore, leaving about 100 families without a place to worship — perhaps for many months, considering the extent of the damage, the expected cost of rebuilding, and the 35-year-old church’s lack of insurance.

Rev. Alex Joy conducts a Christian Orthodox mass in a basement of a Catholic church. CREDIT: Izabela Rutkowski

Yet despite their loss, attending the Holy Qurbana — a Christian Orthodox mass conducted in a South Indian language called Malayalam — has provided dozens of congregants with a sense of continuity and solidarity in Sandy’s wake. Though most of the worshippers don’t live close to the shore, and only a few suffered minor floods in their houses, their community itself has been devastated. Many of the 14 people who died in Staten Island drowned just a couple of blocks from the church on Cedar Grove Avenue.

“The mass provides a sense of normalcy,” said Benil Abraham, 34, a lawyer who came with his family. “Things have been crazy around Staten Island. The opportunity to not miss a Sunday mass gives us a chance to get back to normal and move on.”

St. George was the first Indian Orthodox church in the Western Hemisphere and the only one that suffered during Sandy. Water flooded the basement and the first floor of the church, damaging the kitchen and restrooms in the basement, as well as the floor in the basement and the first floor.

“The church’s doors were completely ripped off,” said Jithin Johnson, 22, a member of a youth group in the church who got to the building a day after the hurricane. “I was just amazed that the church was still standing.”

The church’s secretary, John Cherian, said the congregation needs about $150,000 to renovate the building. Luckily, he said, the water did not damage the altar and pews, which would cost much more to restore.

The building’s mortgage was paid off, which means that despite being in a flood zone, the church was not required to carry flood insurance. FEMA denied its application for disaster assistance, but parishioners hope to get some help from their property insurance. A damage survey was already taken.  The parishioners are now waiting for the insurance company’s decision.

“The church is not the building, the church is the people,” said Joshua Joseph, one of the altar boys, who cleaned up the debris in the church and collected blankets and canned food for the victims in the church’s area.

“It was the wake up call for the Indian community,” he said. “Sadly, we just tend to help our own, we don’t go beyond our Indian community. Sandy changed that.”

The Sunday masses being held in the basement of St. Paul’s Catholic church are different than the services conducted before Sandy. There was no liturgical music played during the service, and instead of an elaborate wooden altar, the priest used a plastic table covered with a lace table runner.

Instead of sharing a traditional meal after the mass, parishioners are picking up a bowl of sweet rice to go. CREDIT: Izabela Rutkowski

At one point during the mass, the priest usually prays alone behind a screen. The tiny crowded room did not have such a thing, so altar boys formed a human curtain for the priest, who was able to fulfill the required element of the Orthodox ceremony.

For the last 35 years, parishioners have ended their three-hour-long mass with a feast in the church’s basement, sitting at a long table and eating food donated by one family while catching up on news and occasionally singing religious songs. There was no feast this week. Only 150 small plastic bowls with sweet rice were given on the way out. The congregation wanted to keep the tradition of a meal after the service, but they had to leave the rented basement. People ate their sweet rice while sitting in their cars, or just took it home.

“It doesn’t feel the same at all,” said Maya Peter, 17, adding that before Sandy she stayed after the church to catch up with friends — but now they have no place to sit. “Now I’m just going home right after church.”

It will take several months for the congregation to be able to get back into its building. Sunday school, the women’s discussion club, and the Thanksgiving talent show — one of the most important events of the year — have all been cancelled.

“Our children wait for this event for a whole year,” said Cicily Sunny, a Sunday school teacher. She added that the church has a tradition of a Thanksgiving dinner with 40 turkeys and a cultural program. Each family goes on stage to entertain the rest of the feasters.

“Everybody loves it, but now we don’t even have chairs to sit on,” Sunny said.  “Everything is gone.”




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