NEW YORK – Just three days after Christmas, a blazing inferno in a Bronx apartment building killed twelve people and injured six more, making it one of the worst fires in recent New York City history. As the neighborhood has spent the last week reeling from its aftermath, grassroots initiatives led by Catholics have been critical to recovery efforts.
“The Catholic presence was the first presence, precisely because we’re inside these neighborhoods,” Father Jonathan Morris, pastor of nearby Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church, told Crux.
Mount Carmel, along with neighboring St. Martin of Tours Church, organized an impromptu food and clothing drive for those affected by the tragedy. While the drive was originally scheduled to last for three days, they were forced to cut it off after the first day due to an overwhelming response.
The fire, which is believed to have been caused by a toddler playing with a stove burner, swept through a five-story apartment building, and the city’s record-setting freezing temperatures made recovery efforts even more difficult.
While many of the victims are not Catholic, Morris told Crux that such a detail did not factor into the local church’s response.
“We have immigrants from so many different nations and faiths in this neighborhood,” Morris told Crux, “and I think we have a responsibility to care not just for the Catholics but for everyone here.”
On Tuesday evening, Our Lady of Mount Carmel hosted a community interfaith prayer service presided over by Morris and leaders from most major denominations in the neighborhood.
“That’s the value of having parishes in the city and in these neighborhoods,” he said. “We’re able to be there with the families as they’re identifying the bodies, and accompanying them in the immediate aftermath.”
Father Cosme Fernandes, pastor of St. Martin of Tours, told his parishioners at Mass on Sunday that the outpouring of support from individuals outside of the neighborhood should be a sign of encouragement.
“The way we’ve received support from the Bronx and beyond is a sign that the victims are not alone, that we are united,” he said.
Fernandes also paid special tribute to Emmanuel Mensah, one of the victims who died helping others escape the blaze. Mensah, a private in the Army National Guard, was a former member of the parish.
On Sunday, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York visited the scene of the fire to offer his prayers and blessings. Dolan arrived at the apartment building riding in the front seat of a fire truck after having a pasta lunch with over fifty first responders from nearby Engine 88 Ladder 38.
“In the midst of this tragedy, these guys were there first,” Dolan told CBS New York. “You see a tremendous amount of outpouring of solidarity, support and charity.”
“There’s a professionalism and objectivity while they’re doing their job, but boy, when it’s over, it dawns on them what they saw and what they went through,” he added. “There has to be tremendous grief, because they love their people–or they wouldn’t be in the service. This is a job that has to be a calling, so their hearts are in–it and it’s gotta break their heart.”
The tragedy occurred in the Belmont neighborhood of the Bronx, which is also home to Jesuit-run Fordham University. In response, President Joseph McShane issued a university-wide e-mail encouraging both prayers and material support.
McShane announced that Fordham’s Dorothy Day Center would be collecting clothing and that the campus ministry would designate all proceeds from Sunday’s collection to fire victims and a subsequent collection would be taken up at all masses on the first weekend following the winter break.
“At least four of the victims were children, making the loss even more heartbreaking. Frigid temperatures have exacerbated their plight,” said McShane. “I urge you to donate whatever you can to help our neighbors in their hour of need.”
The fire took place in the poorest congressional district in the country, and Morris told Crux that the response of Catholic Charities has been “exceptional” in helping think through the long-term needs of the more than 20 displaced families.
“The Red Cross was there for the first days to coordinate immediate shelter but then four or five days, and then they’re gone,” said Morris. “Thank God we have them, but the long term response is what matters, and that’s where Catholic Charities comes in to play.”