NY Post - December 24, 2012by ANTONIO ANTENUCCI, REBECCA HARSHBARGER and PEDRO OLIVEIRA JR.
A coldhearted arsonist yesterday set fire to a historic Brooklyn church that was storing hundreds of toys for underprivileged children, police said.
The firebug poured gasoline — which was being stored at the targeted site for a holiday party in the storm-ravaged Rockaways — around the front doors of the Church of St. Luke and St. Matthew in Clinton Hill and set it ablaze at about 3:30 a.m.
Three volunteers were sleeping on the Romanesque church’s second floor and were awakened by the smell of smoke. They rushed out and called 911.
“I was in a kind of shock. As I got closer to the doorway, the smoke was strong,” said security volunteer John Chappelle, 29.
The church is the headquarters for Occupy Sandy relief efforts.
“Thank God the other two people were there,” added a shaken Chappelle, who was sleeping at the sanctuary to receive early-morning donations and safeguard relief supplies for Sandy victims.
“I’m a deep sleeper. [My friend] woke me up and said, ‘We’ve got to go.’ ”
It took more than 100 firefighters to put down the blaze, which went to a second alarm at about 4:30 a.m. and was under control an hour later.
The flames damaged the church’s balcony above the foyer and partially burned the nave.
It also damaged two 19th-century chairs — one of which was going to be used on Christmas by a parishioner playing Santa Claus and handing out gifts to children.
“Why do people do things like this? Why does darkness cloud their hearts?” asked the Rev. Christopher Ballard, who saw two empty gasoline cans near the church’s front entrance.
Church officials said late yesterday they won’t be able to use the sanctuary’s main entrance.
But they’re hopeful they’ll be able to hold Christmas Eve Mass.
“Christmas is the biggest service here of the year,” said photojournalist Kelly Guenther, 37, a neighbor. “It’s horrible! I don’t know how someone could do something like this so close to Christmas.”
Church leaders were still figuring out details, but parishioners will likely have to squeeze through a small entrance on the side of the building.
One church volunteer, Eljay Marquez, 25, said there were hundreds of donated toys stored in the church’s basement.
Fortunately, the presents, which will be given to Sandy victims and other children in need, were not damaged.
“It’s horrible someone would do this to a church and to people who are helping with relief, especially two days before Christmas,” Marquez said.
“Thank God nobody is hurt.”
Authorities have yet to find any suspects.
One neighbor said he was awakened by arguing on the street before the blaze broke out.
Another told cops someone had been knocking on the church’s door, trying to get in, before the fire.
The Rev. Ballard said that the blaze was started with gasoline from the holiday cans and that he found pamphlets from an undisclosed ultraconservative church, which he said “were used as kindling.”
He would not disclose where the pamphlets appeared to come from, and authorities would not say if they suspected a church rivalry led to the fire.
“Fire is not going to deter us from what we are doing,” Ballard said.
Built as St. Luke’s Protestant Episcopal Church in the 19th century, the church was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982.