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Members of burned-out Merrick church hold services in tent

Athena Mountanos of Bellmore kisses a damaged painting

Athena Mountanos of Bellmore kisses a damaged painting of St. Nicephorus which survived the fire at St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church in Merrick. (Aug. 11, 2013) Photo Credit: Steve Pfost

Parishioners of a Greek Orthodox church in Merrick badly damaged by fire Friday night reunited Sunday under a tent for services in the church parking lot.

More than 300 members gathered to worship -- some sitting in white folding chairs, some standing -- at St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church on Hewlett Avenue.

"We put out the fire not just with the water of the firefighters, but also we put out the fire with the water of our tears, because destruction and damages cannot overwhelm faith and hope," said the church's pastor, the Rev. Nikiforos Fakinos, at a 10 a.m. service. He spoke on a makeshift stage flanked by salvaged gilded altar items.

"This faith and hope brought numerous, inspiring and motivating . . . volunteers . . . not just the parishioners and members of this congregation, but good people from every walk of life" who helped set up Sunday's services, collected or cleaned soot off icons, he said.

"We will rebuild," he said. "The church will be restored to its original beauty."

Police and fire crews were dispatched to the church after receiving a 911 call shortly before 9:30 p.m. Friday. The fire was sparked by a lit candle inside the vestibule, authorities said.

It destroyed the church's main entrance and a second-story choir loft, while water and smoke damaged 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 commemorating the dormition -- or death -- of Mary, the mother of Jesus.

After the church cleared, the candles remained lit below the icons of Mary and St. Demetrios, a patron saint of military causes, parishioners said Saturday. It wasn't clear whether those candles started the fire.

Gus Lafkas, 42, of Merrick, said he was driving past the church with his wife, Patricia, when the pair saw smoke and flames inside the church windows. The couple, who are members, called 911.

"It's sad, but also happy -- the fact that we're all together here," said Lafkas, motioning toward the tent. "We're going to bring back the church."

Patty Sarantakos, 47, of Merrick, who grew up in the church, said her father was one of its founding members in the late 1950s in Freeport, before the church relocated to Merrick in the 1980s.

"This is extremely devastating," she said of the fire, as she set up nondairy cookies, vegetable pitas and coffee for congregants who are in the midst of a nondairy/nonmeat fasting period for the dormition until Aug. 15.

"A lot of hard work has gone into the iconography on the walls inside. . . . A lot of people have toiled and have dedicated themselves to creating a strong community. It's a setback, but we'll get through it."

George Karadakis, 53, of Bellmore, who is a former parish council leader, said about 450 families attend the church. The large turnout Sunday was "symbolic that we support our church," he said, adding that he believed that it would take six months to a year to restore the church.

Fakinos said that neighboring churches have offered to temporarily house the congregation in bad weather. It was a welcome sign, he said, paired with the fact that of 40 icons burned to ashes, the icon of his patron saint -- St. Nikiforos -- was largely unscathed.

"I cannot find any stronger sign . . . that God wants us to work and gives me the strength to wipe all the tears and do what we can together," he said.

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