Sandra Nazzaro watched from across the street as thick black smoke poured from St. John the Baptist Albanian Orthodox Church in South Boston Wednesday morning.
Flames burst through the roof, and firefighters struggled to get water on the blaze. But Nazzaro, a parishioner and church administrator, could only watch as fire consumed her longtime church.
“It is just something you never think is going to happen,” Nazzaro said as she recalled the family events that took place at the church. “You love it, you take care of it, and then you have to see it go down. Everyone in my family was baptized here. My parents were married from St. John’s. It is very close to us, it is part of our life.”
The church dates to the early 1800s, and has been an Albanian Orthodox church since the 1930s, church officials said. The interior included a large mural of St. John.
“The altar area is hand-carved wood and gold leaf with hand-painted icons,” said the Rev. Arthur Liolin, chancellor of the Albanian Orthodox Archdiocese. “It is a very beautiful church. It would touch your heart.”
About 9:15 a.m. Wednesday, firefighters were called to 410 West Broadway for a report of a fire behind the building.
As soon as crews arrived and found the church ablaze, the fire was elevated to two alarms.
But the smoke kept pouring out as the flames spread. It would eventually escalate to a five-alarm fire.
“Upon arrival, firefighters forced entry into the building,” Acting Fire Chief John Hasson said at the scene. “There was heavy fire around the altar, up the walls, and [it] extended into the ceiling and roof areas.”
As the fire grew, the faithful arrived from near and far, some coming from as far as Ashland.
By the time the fire was extinguished, about five hours after the initial 911 call, part of the church’s roof had collapsed, and the interior was damaged from fire, smoke, and water.
“It looks like it’s going to be a total loss,” Hasson said.
Total damage is estimated at $1 million, officials said, but the fate of the building will be determined by structural engineers Thursday.
At the height of the fire, flames flickered from the building and smoke billowed into the air, creating a plume that was visible for miles and that at times shrouded streets.
While fire crews were fighting the flames from inside the building, the ceiling started to come down, Hasson said. An immediate evacuation was ordered, and firefighters continued their battle from outside, he said.
At times, getting water onto the fire was difficult, so firefighters let the blaze burn through the roof to allow better access to the flames below.
No one was inside when the fire broke out, and no civilians were injured. Eight firefighters were treated for injuries, according to Fire Department spokesman Steve MacDonald.
One was hospitalized overnight following a surgery for a serious cut to his leg, he said.
The fire is believed to have originated near the altar and spread, said Deputy Fire Chief Robert Calobrisi.
Liolin said candles would not have been burning at the altar Wednesday morning.
He said they were put out after the liturgy Sunday, which was attended by about 150 people, and since then no one had visited the building, except for perhaps a custodian Monday or Tuesday.
What ignited the blaze is under investigation, but it is not considered suspicious, fire officials said.
As the flames raged, firefighters worked to keep the inferno from spreading to other buildings.
Firefighters cleared an area surrounding the church because of concern that the roof or exterior walls could tumble to the ground below.
On Thursday, a crane will remove part of the roof that engineers deemed unsafe.
Officials said that 10 occupants of two homes behind the church had left on their own and would remain displaced until their building is declared safe for occupancy.
Structural engineers are expected to make that determination Thursday.
The fire, and the possibility of the building being doomed, dealt heart-wrenching blows to the congregation of about 300 people. “It is a lot of family tradition that has gone up in flames,” said Anthony Nasson, who has worshipped at St. John’s for 60 to 70 years.
Cynthia Vasil Brown, the church’s choir director, said the church has close ties to the South Boston and Albanian immigrant communities, and will not be easily replaced.
“I grew up in this church,” she said. “This is where I spend my life, so it is very emotional. It’s devastating.”Colin A. Young can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @ColinAYoung.