Photo of fire damage
San Francisco Examiner

Fire strikes at S.F. church during holiday

By Tyche Hendricks

OF THE EXAMINER STAFF

Monday, April 20, 1998

$20,000 damage to oldest Orthodox parish in U.S.; arson experts called in

As dawn broke on the Orthodox Christian celebration of Easter, fire erupted in a Van Ness Avenue church that is the oldest Orthodox parish in the United States.

Volunteers were leaving the Holy Trinity Cathedral early Sunday morning, after tidying up from a midnight Easter celebration, when one of them spotted the blaze, said Christopher Sokolov, son of the parish priest and a sub-deacon of the church at Green Street and Van Ness.

The one-alarm fire caused about $20,000 worth of damage, but all of it is considered repairable and no one was injured, according to a San Francisco Fire Department spokesman. The cause of the fire is unknown, and arson experts have been called in to investigate.

Piles of charred debris on the street did not deter about 50 worshipers from returning at noon Sunday for a service in the smoke-damaged sanctuary. In fact, said Sokolov, the damage of the fire contained an Easter message for the parish.

"(The service) was a good experience -- a chance to put in perspective the events of the morning," he said. "It reminded us that it's the joy of the resurrection of Christ that we celebrate today; that despite the difficulties placed in our path, good can come out of them."

The church is a two-story wooden building with a central dome, a spire and an icon of Christ on an exterior wall.

Lt. Ed Campbell said the blaze broke out just after 6 a.m. in a ground-level southeast corner room used for storage, and that the fire largely was confined to that room. It was brought under control at 7:19 a.m.

"It will be several days before we find out the exact cause of the fire," Campbell said. "Usually the crew or the captain can say, "It looks electrical' or "It looks like discarded smoking materials,' or something. In this case they couldn't, so they called arson."

The parish of Holy Trinity was founded in 1857 by Russian immigrants. Sokolov said the cathedral was built in 1909 after the earlier church was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake.

Easter -- or Pascha, as it is known to Orthodox Christians -- celebrates the resurrection of Christ. It is the most important observance of the Orthodox calendar, Sokolov said.

At Holy Trinity, about 100 worshipers attended a midnight service Saturday. The service included a procession around the church, a proclamation of the resurrection of Christ, and then the divine liturgy or Eucharist service.

Though the primary language at the church is English, the proclamation is made in "as many languages as the priest knows," Sokolov said. In this case: Russian, Greek, Romanian, English and Arabic. The religious observances were followed by a big celebratory meal to break the 40-day fast of Lent. Though most parishioners had gone home in the wee hours of Sunday morning, Sokolov said, a few were washing dishes when the fire was spotted.

1998 San Francisco Examiner

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