Historic church burns in East Oak Lane

Firefighters train hoses on St. Mary the Protectress Ukrainian Ortho- dox Church in East Oak Lane. One firefighter sustained minor injuries; the blaze was under control at 3:19 p.m.
Firefighters train hoses on St. Mary the Protectress Ukrainian Ortho- dox Church in East Oak Lane. One firefighter sustained minor injuries; the blaze was under control at 3:19 p.m. (JOSEPH KACZMAREK / For The Inquirer)
Posted: August 27, 2013

A historic Ukrainian Orthodox church in East Oak Lane was gutted by fire Sunday afternoon while the bishop, the pastor, and a large part of the congregation were at a picnic celebrating Ukrainian Independence Day.

The Associated Press reported one firefighter suffered minor injuries. No other injuries were reported in the blaze at St. Mary the Protectress Ukrainian Orthodox Church, first reported about 1 p.m., but all of the intricate stained-glass windows, woodwork, and artifacts inside were believed to have been destroyed.

Philadelphia firefighters closed several blocks for hours, snaking dozens of hoses up ladder trucks to battle the four-alarm fire. At one point, thick clouds of gray smoke encircled the spires of the Beaux Arts church with Gothic Revival stonework. The fire was declared under control at 3:19 p.m.

The worship site, built in 1914, had formerly housed Oak Lane Baptist Church, completed in 1922 and dedicated in 1923, according to Marita Krivda Poxon, author of Oak Lane, Olney, and Logan: Images of America Series. It was sold and became St. Mary the Protectress in 1972.

It is one of the few Ukrainian Orthodox churches in the Philadelphia area, and member Natalie Hursky said people come from as far as West Chester to attend services there.

"The older ones like my mother, who wants to be buried here, who is 98 years old - I don't dare tell her," said Anatole Pohorilenko, 69, of Cheltenham, tearing up as he viewed the destruction.

"That's where the children's classes were," he said, motioning upward. "That window up there, that's where all my nieces and nephews were christened."

Another Ukrainian Orthodox church is just seven blocks away, on Fifth Street. With membership at both churches dwindling, there had been some discussion of the two parishes' merging - a prospect that now seems all but inevitable.

Father Taras Naumenko, pastor of St. Vladimir Ukrainian Orthodox Cathedral, said, "Our parish will offer them any assistance they need."

[Update: A previous version of this article indicated that there were "only two Ukranian Orthodox churches in the Philadelphia area."  There is also one in Chester and one in Coatesville. ]


Contact Jessica Parks at 610-313-8117, jparks@philly.com, or follow on Twitter @JS-Parks.

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