“My wife woke me at 2:45 a.m. because she heard three loud thumping sounds and thought maybe somebody was breaking into our car,” said Pastor Aviela de Leon of Maspeth United Methodist Church. “About 45 minutes later I smelled smoke, and noticed that the back corner of the church was on fire. A few minutes later, the first fire truck showed up.”
De Leon spoke Tuesday morning from the front porch of the parsonage, which sits next door to the 102-year-old church, as he watched firefighters extinguish the last of the flames. The parsonage was unharmed.
While it is still too early for the Fire Department to determine what started the fire, de Leon believes that the loud sounds his wife heard may have been lightning from several strong thunderstorms that moved through the area overnight striking the church.
Joining de Leon on the front porch of the parsonage was Edward Bielen, a Maspeth resident who sits on the church’s Board of Trustees. Bielen arrived on the scene at 4:30 a.m. after receiving a call from the pastor’s wife.
“What’s so shocking is that it was such a small fire, and then within 45 minutes the whole building was in flames,” he said. “I guess it’s an old building and the wood frame is dry.”
Maspeth United Methodist Church has a 155-year history in the community. According to Bielen, the church moved to its current location at 66-35 58th Avenue 102 years ago. He said like many churches across the city, the active congregation had begun to dwindle over the years, with only about 20 to 25 people showing up on a good Sunday.
However, he said the church was still a strong presence in the community and played host to a number of events and organizations, including 175 Girl Scouts who use the church on a weekly basis, yoga classes, and an Alcoholics Anonymous group who used church space every Sunday night to hold their meetings.
Bielen said it was still too early to think about the church’s future, but said the fire was especially devastating because de Leon was going to retire at the end of the month after 14 years of service.
“Now, I have no church to retire from,” said de Leon.