One by one, they streamed into the cathedral Sunday, tears and grief filling their eyes. Four days had passed since a fire ripped through their beloved St. John the Baptist Albanian Orthodox Church, an old South Boston worship center and gathering space for Albanian families.
On Sunday, church members mourned.
“We’ve lost a beautiful church,’’ said longtime member Sofia Louise Andon after a private service Sunday. “I’m devastated. It was my second home.”
About 50 St. John members — including the choir director, Sunday school teacher, and others — had gathered at St. George Cathedral, a sister church on East Broadway that opened its doors to the displaced congregation. They huddled in a chapel, praying, reading Scripture, and sharing tearful stories of their memories of St. John: baptisms, weddings, funerals, and celebrations.
“We were all crying,’’ said Sandy Nazzaro, the Sunday School teacher and a member for 70 years. “Each of us had an opportunity to reminisce.”
Archbishop Nikon of Boston, New England, and the Albanian Diocese, said worshipers were upset about the loss of treasured icons in the fire — including depictions of the Archangel Michael and the birth of Christ. But he delivered a message of hope during Sunday’s service, reminding worshipers that they can move on from the loss.
“We listened to them,’’ said the archbishop. “They shared their thoughts, prayers, and hopes for the future. They were told that the church is not a building, but that they are the church.”
“No words can express the sympathy we have for our sister church,’’ said Father Mark Doku of St. George Cathedral after Communion Sunday. “Of course all of us saw the images on TV, but driving by this morning, it was extremely painful.’’
St. John’s pastor, Father John Scollard, said although the mood of the service was sad and contemplative, worshipers expressed gratitude for the outpouring of support from across the country. Scollard recounted the message he gave his congregation Sunday: God would carry them even in the worst times.
“We are in this water and we are in the storm. But we are not afraid,’’ Scollard recalled saying.
The fire began about 9:15 a.m. Wednesday at the church at 410 West Broadway, and it quickly consumed the building. Fire investigators determined the cause was an electrical short circuit in a ceiling light fixture in the vestibule area, located behind the main altar.
Cynthia Vasil Brown, the choir director and a member of the St. John parish council, said she accompanied fire investigators in the building Wednesday evening and witnessed the devastation firsthand. “It was 10 times worse than what I imagined,’’ she said, her eyes welling. “Everything was destroyed.”
Church officials said it will take two to three weeks for them to assess all that was lost in the fire, which ripped apart a rear section of the roof, whose charred wooden remains are visible from the street. Members said they will continue to worship at St. George until they decide on a new church home.
St. John, which dates to the 1800s, has been an Albanian Orthodox church since the 1930s, church officials said. The interior included a large mural of St. John. Members bought the West Broadway building in 1948.
Through the years, worshipers saved and scrimped to keep the old church humming. And it became a meeting place — a kind of homestead — for prayers, socials, and other gatherings for members who scattered around the region. Many of the members are related to one another.
Vasil Brown has been a member for 54 years: Her parents attended, she was baptized at St. John, and she and her husband, John, were married at the church.
“It was more than just going to church,’’ she said. “It was part of our lives.”
After the service, Skerdi and Vjollca Avrami of South Boston said they were buoyed by Sunday’s messages of hope and renewal. “The message was be strong and be supportive of each other — and keep our faith,’’ said Skerdi Avrami. “There will be another church.”
The church has started a fire recovery fund. The address is St. John Fire Recovery Fund, 143 Dorchester St., P.O. Box 125, South Boston, MA, 02127.