A great loss for old New Yorkers; a greater loss for Serbian Orthodox believers at Pascha

If you have seen images of the fire that gutted the Serbian Orthodox Cathedral of St. Sava in New York City -- with the flames blasting through the rose window -- then you know why onlookers described this as a scene from hell.

In terms of the news coverage, this was a pretty straightforward story that metro-desk journalists know how to cover. You get quotes from eyewitnesses, you nail down the details from the proper city authorities and that is pretty much that.

A reader asked for my reactions and, frankly, I didn't think there would be much that was worthy of comment, in terms of journalism. I could offer my reactions as an Orthodox believer, of course.

This morning, however, I saw the two-story package in The New York Times and there are several points I would like to make -- about the bad and the good.

As you would expect, the Times team made it very clear this building was a historic and beloved landmark in the city, offering an entire sidebar on the sanctuary's history -- stressing that it once was an Episcopal chapel created by the historic Trinity Church congregation in lower Manhattan. In other words, this wasn't just a New York landmark. This was a landmark of "old" money New York. In the past, this was a church that really mattered.

But the coverage did not slight the Serbians who have called the church their spiritual home for decades. However, there is evidence in the main report that some members of the Times team may not have understood all of the details provided by the Orthodox witnesses.

Here is the my main point: The story does not include details of the Easter -- the Orthodox call this greatest of all feasts "Pascha" -- services that took place in the hours before the blaze.

Why is this crucial? To be blunt, the church would have been full of hundreds of people with candles.

Fire is a crucial element in these rites, symbolizing the light that enters the world with the resurrection of Jesus. The candle trees in the sanctuary would have been extra, extra full of candles, along with the sand boxes to hold prayer candles left by worshipers. Did the faithful do the traditional procession, inside or outside of the building, with everyone carrying a candle?

The Orthodox know what they are doing, when it comes to candles. But accidents happen. Fires after Pascha services are not common -- but they happen (as the Orthodox learned again last year here in East Tennessee).

Did anyone talk to members of the parish, or the clergy, about the timing and the details of the 30 hours or so of services leading up to the actual Pascha rites? The St. Sava website contained the key details.

And speaking of details, it helps to know a few Orthodox terms (such as "Pascha"). The main Times story, for example, says:

“It’s a very emotional experience,” said Velimir Sabic, a Serbian immigrant and longtime congregant of St. Sava, who stood with his wife and their three young children at a barricade.
The vaulted roof, which had been renovated several years ago, was reduced to a charred, spindly skeleton. The roof of the apse in the rear section was a shambles. The once-grand stained-glass windows were now gaping chasms. The cause of the fire remained under investigation on Monday.
Mr. Sabic said his family had watched the 19th-century church burn on the evening news, as the blaze quickly tore through it, devastating the pitched roof. The footage reduced his two young sons, both altar boys at St. Sava’s, to tears. He said he brought his family from their home in the Bronx to pay respects to the church, for decades the spiritual pillar of the Serbian community.
“For Serbs, this was our main church in New York,” said Nick Zelenovic, a retired textile manufacturer from Middle Village, Queens, who said his two children were christened there.
“For every Serb, there is a lot of sadness today,” said Mr. Zelenovic, who added that, within days of arriving in New York from Serbia in 1972, he began attending Mass at St. Sava.

Now, I do not know the words that this Serb spoke in this interview. However, I would assume that an active Orthodox layman -- with altar-boy sons -- would have said that his children were "baptized" in this sanctuary, instead of "christened." He would also have said that he began attending "Divine Liturgy" rites at St. Sava soon after his arrival in America, as opposed to using the Catholic term "Mass."

Do these kinds of details matter?

Well, getting the language right matters on prestige news beats such as sports, arts, business and politics. There is no reason to make mistakes of this kind in an emotional story about the Orthodox, mistakes that hint that reporters have assumed that the Orthodox are simply honorary Catholics with different ethnic traditions.

Once again, let me stress that the Times team did fine work on many of the human details of this story. As someone who is currently getting to know the city, and its sprawling mass-transit universe, I appreciated the careful detail at the start of this passage about a loyal member of this parish and the effort it took for her to make it to the Pascha rites.

It was a journey that required Mirjana Jovanovic, of Glendale, to take three trains and a bus to attend the Easter service, all while carrying the dozen colored eggs she had made.
Ms. Jovanovic said she began attending services there almost immediately after immigrating to New York from Serbia in 1986. She was married in the church in 2002, she said on Monday after talking her way past police lines so she could take snapshots of the building, “just to remember.”
Besides news reports, word of the fire spread by word of mouth and over the church’s website, which alerted parishioners with a simple headline: “Our Church Has Burned Down.”
Flames first began appearing out of the top edges of the front double doors, and within minutes, the circular stained-glass window higher up on the facade shattered, and “a big tongue of fire came jumping out,” said Herman Tulp, a Dutch tourist staying across the street at a hotel.
“It was apocalyptic,” he said.

To say the least.

So did the mistakes the Times team made -- when dealing with Orthodox Christian language -- run the story? Of course not. Frankly, the Orthodox are used to seeing these mistakes made time after time in coverage of events linked to our churches.

But would it have helped the story if reporters had grasped the intensity of the Pascha services -- complete with a thousand-plus candles moving around the sanctuary -- that ended just before the blaze? Would these factual details have added context to this report, making this tragedy even more poignant?

What do you think?

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