A fire that badly damaged a Greek Orthodox church in Merrick was sparked by a lit candle inside the vestibule, authorities said.
Despite the extensive damage, parishioners at St. Demetrios on Hewlett Avenue planned to hold services Sunday in the church parking lot, as they begin what they expect to be a lengthy restoration.
The church's pastor, the Rev. Nikiforos Fakinos, said the fire had caused "enormous devastation," but the community "will rebuild the church and restore its original beauty."
He said the parish "must carry on," even later in a temporary structure like a tent. This morning at 9, Divine Liturgy will be celebrated in the parking lot.
Police and fire crews were dispatched to the 29-year-old church after receiving a 911 call shortly before 9:30 p.m. Friday.
Fire destroyed the church's main entrance, a second-story choir loft and resulted in extensive water and smoke damage to the sanctuary, said Ron Luparello, a spokesman and former chief of the Merrick Fire Department.
Less than an hour before the fire, the church had been filled with parishioners attending a service in preparation for the dormition -- or death -- of Mary, the mother of Jesus.
Fakinos had preached about a martyr who had burned to death, attendants said.
After the church cleared, the candles remained lit below the icons of Mary and St. Demetrios, a patron saint of military causes.
"The whole idea is to remind us to keep praying all night," said Cynthia Golding, a church member for 18 years. "It was an accident waiting to happen."
At least 75 firefighters from Merrick, North Merrick, Bellmore, North Bellmore, Wantagh, Seaford, East Meadow, Freeport, Baldwin, and Roosevelt responded.
Witnesses said firefighters saved key artifacts, including an icon of Mary. One Merrick firefighter was treated for carbon monoxide poisoning at Nassau University Medical Center in East Meadow and released, Luparello said. A damage estimate was not immediately available.
Patty Lofkas, a longtime parishioner, said she noticed smoke coming from the church as she drove home and called 911. Early Saturday, she surveyed the damage: doors charred, pews scorched, icons and paintings blackened, and wooden boards in place of shattered stained-glass windows.
It was the building where Lofkas grew up, got married and had her children baptized. "This was our home," she said.
The church, which serves nearly 400 families, was built in 1984 after years of fundraising to move from a small building in Freeport, members said.
"Community means to come together in unity, in times of need and in times of joy," Fakinos said. "This is one of those times."
With Robert Brodsky