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Faith intact after fire

Smoke had blackened every pew in his church, flames had devoured all the food he'd gathered for charity, and hose water had drowned his kitchen. But the 65-year-old Wyandanch priest remained undaunted yesterday.

"We're going to rebuild here," said a red-eyed Rev. Bill Brisotti as he surveyed damage to Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal Roman Catholic Church. "Out of bad things, good things come."

The apparently accidental fire injured no one but caused as much as $1 million in damage to the church and its related buildings on Straight Path late Sunday. It also destroyed an outreach center that church officials said provides around 1,000 homeless and low-income residents with food, clothing and fuel each month. The congregation will worship in the parish hall, which was undamaged.

The priest and several parishioners spent all night watching as volunteers from four fire departments extinguished the blaze. Brisotti said investigators so far believe the fire may have been sparked by a malfunctioning fluorescent lightbulb in the ceiling of a mobile home on church grounds that served as part of the center.

Suffolk County Police said the cause is undetermined and its arson squad is still investigating.

Just before 11 p.m. Sunday, frantic phone calls roused parishioner Larry Schroeder from his sleep at home in Wheatley Heights. He rushed to the scene, he said, and found firefighters at work, smoke shrouding his church of 43 years and flames dancing on the rectory roof.

The 73-year-old is precise in describing his place of worship: The sanctuary was built in 1936, renovated in 1998, and has a capacity of 243, he said. Schroeder seemed equally careful in conveying his feelings of loss.

After a long pause, he said quietly, "I guess a popular word would be 'devastated.'"

In the sanctuary yesterday morning, a sticky layer of soot coated every floorboard, candle and cross and a light haze still hung in the air, smelling of burned plastic. Down the hallway, the rectory - remodeled just four weeks ago at about $30,000, according to Schroeder, the church's liturgy director, - was reduced to a swamp of shattered furniture and wet ash.

But the blaze unleashed the brunt of its fury on the two mobile homes in the church's backyard that parishioners had converted into a distribution center for free food, heating oil and secondhand winter clothes.

With the charred, collapsed skeleton of the buildings behind her, Helen Bolger, a member of the program's board of directors, worried about the sudden interruption in services.

"We have a steady stream of clients coming through with needs in winter particularly," she said. "The impact on the community will be enormous."

Church officials said the outreach program is the largest in the Diocese of Rockville Centre, whose officials said yesterday they were looking for ways to make up the sudden shortfall.

"We realize it's kind of a critical outreach effort there," said diocese spokesman Sean Dolan. "There may be a temporary void, but I know that in situations like this, we marshal all of our resources to fill in the gaps as quickly as possible."

Dolan said monetary donations marked for Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal Church are being accepted by the diocese at P.O. Box 9023, Rockville Centre, NY 11571.

Contributions can also be mailed to the church at 1434 Straight Path, Wyandanch, NY 11798, Brisotti said.

As the priest picked through the wreckage of his church yesterday, tallying losses, he was quick to mention the food, the coats, the outreach programs.

Only when prompted did Brisotti speak of the more than 50 banjos, mandolins and guitars he'd spent a lifetime collecting.

Brisotti's younger brother John said the priest performs weekly and has loved playing since childhood. The priest was overwhelmed with gratitude when firefighters rescued most of the instruments, John Brisotti said.

"He was in tears this morning telling me about it."

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