A fire started by an unattended candle caused more than $1 million in damage to St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church on Wednesday, officials said.
The early-morning fire left the main church building unusable, and several buildings on the property were damaged by smoke and soot. The church is at 1145 E. Fort Lowell Road, east of North First Avenue.
Church officials were making plans to hold services for now in a youth center that wasn't damaged.
"My faith is helping me cope. I have lots of good memories from this church. I am holding on to the good memories," said Chrys Lynn Kotzambasis, president of the church council.
Kotzambasis, 41, said the candle that caused the fire stood in front of the altar. "It was a seven-day candle," Kotzambasis said.
"The altar is intact, except for smoke damage," said the woman, who grew up attending the church.
A police officer checking on a private security company's notice of an alarm being triggered on the church property just after midnight spotted heavy smoke coming from buildings there, said Capt. Barrett Baker, a Tucson Fire Department spokesman.
Several units arrived about five minutes later to find smoke coming from several areas of the church. Despite the smoke and extreme heat, firefighters were unable to find flames, he said.
Crews had to cut a hole in the church roof to vent some of the smoke and heat. It took about 30 minutes to get the fire under control.
A book known as the "bleeding Gospel" was not damaged in the blaze.
"The bleeding Gospel was saved. It was in front of the altar on a stand. It was 100 percent intact," said Kotzambasis, explaining that the glass container, which held it, did explode.
A retired pastor, the late Rev. Anthony K. Moschonas, made headlines on Holy Thursday in 1989 when he reported that one of his copies of the Holy Gospels had miraculously shed real blood. Though Moschonas declined an offer to have the book scientifically tested, several of his parishioners confirmed his report. The "bleeding Gospel," said Moschonas in a 2004 interview with the Star, has been responsible for several miracles.
Parishioners began showing up Wednesday morning to help with cleanup.
"Our parishioners are remarkable as individuals, and collectively we are as strong as a rock. We have great spiritual guidance from Father Earl (Cantos)," the church's pastor, said Kotzambasis.
Parishioners cleaned the Rose and Clarence Drake Youth Center, which will serve as the temporary church indefinitely, said Nora Retsinas, a member of the church since 1962. The second floor of the center has been turned into the church office.
"It's just wonderful how our community, especially our youth, have come to help," said Retsinas. "We will celebrate our 65th year in October."
The original church was on Second Avenue, said Dino Sakellar, an architect who was volunteering at the church to help assess damage.
Church leaders still need to meet with the insurance adjuster.
Sakellar said his father, Nick Sakellar, helped build the church. The present church was built in 1967, and the first service was in 1968.
A cornerstone near the entrance reads: "To those who brought our faith to these shores and to those who keep it alive." - Hercules Gregory.
"It's a miracle that the church didn't burn down," said Sakellar. "The roof deck is 4-inch-thick cedar. "There may be a possibility the church will not have to be razed," Sakellar said.
City building-safety officials did condemn the building, said Baker of the Tucson Fire Department.
St. Catherine's Chapel, next to the church, was not damaged. Volunteers moved icons from the chapel into what will serve as the church and set up the altar.
Parishioner Kiriaki Lauria, who had been cleaning since 7 a.m., brought linen from her home to use on the altar.
"What's important is that nobody was hurt," said Lauria, as she hung a vestment in the temporary church.
Among the icons moved from the chapel were St. Gabriel, St. Michael the Archangel, St. Catherine, the Virgin Mary with baby Jesus and St. John the Baptist.
St. Demetrios has about 400 parishioners, and the temporary church will seat about 100.
"I am so sad. It is a small church but such a beautiful church. We had so many icons - our walls displayed several hundred," Retsinas said.
The church is the site of the annual Tucson Greek Festival, which attracts thousands in September over several days.
Asked if the festival will be canceled this year, Lauria replied: "The Greeks are very resilient people. If we can have it, we will have it."
On StarNet: Go to azstarnet.com/gallery to see more photos of fire damage at the church.
Contact reporter Carmen Duarte at email@example.com or 573-4104.