Tears streamed down the Rev. William Brisotti's face as he watched a fire set by an arsonist consume the outreach center at Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal Roman Catholic Church in Wyandanch on the night of Dec. 30, 2007.
The raging blaze at the parish he serves was "about the most devastating moment I've ever experienced," the priest recalled.
Today, as hundreds of thousands of Long Islanders at Easter services celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ, Brisotti and his staff are filled with amazement and gratitude: The Gerald J. Ryan Outreach Center, a vital lifeline for families in one of Long Island's poorest parishes, has literally risen from the ashes and is operating in a new $1.3 million facility.
"They destroyed the building, but they didn't destroy the heart of the parish and this place," said Brisotti, 71, who has worked on and off in the parish the past 40 years.
"At times people thought it would not happen" and the center never would reopen, he said. "I knew the heart of this place is not going to die."
A local man, who had apparent mental illness, was convicted of setting the fire.
That night, Brisotti was en route to the center after visiting relatives when he neared the church and rectory, where he lived, and saw firefighters battling the blaze.
The outreach center was engulfed, and flames were threatening the rectory and the church itself. Brisotti dashed into the church's sanctuary amid the smoke and retrieved the Blessed Sacrament -- the Communion hosts. When the fire finally was extinguished, much of the complex was gutted or damaged.
The long road back
Days later, the outreach center resumed operations, working in the parish hall and then from rented trailers and storage containers in the church parking lot.
It was hardly ideal: There was little privacy, and clients' conversations with case workers -- often including intimate details of family troubles -- could be overheard. To use the restroom, workers and clients had to don jackets and walk through rain, snow or cold to the parish offices.
The parish needed substantial money to build a new outreach center. Fundraising challenges and other problems dragged out the process for years. The 3,600-square-foot center was completed in June 2012, though it was months more before it resumed operations.
Today, it hums with activity, serving about 1,000 families a month. The center provides food, clothing, rental assistance, job counseling, translating and other services. It also runs an after-school program for up to 50 children and a summer camp for another 150 children in grades 1-6.
"We don't just have a building, we have a home," said Noelle Campbell, the center's director. "For me it is God -- God making it happen when there is no way for it to happen."
For many clients, the center is a godsend.
Pamela Beasley, 44, a single mother of two from Wyandanch, said she probably would be homeless if not for the help she has received. The disabled former factory worker survives on about $650 a month in welfare payments and relies on the center for food, clothing and other necessities.
"They did a lot for me when I was down and out in the gutter," she said. "I just love them."
Rebuilding the center and keeping it open has been a community effort, stretching far beyond Wyandanch. Parishioners gave what they could and donations came from many other sources. Twin college-age brothers ran from Montauk to Queens to raise money. Teenagers in Amityville held a dance-a-thon, while others in Nassau held a walkathon.
Some children literally emptied their piggy banks, Campbell said.
The effort also was ecumenical. Temple Beth Torah in Melville, two of whose members serve as chairman and vice chairman of the center's board of trustees, donated funds. So did the Dix Hills Jewish Center.
The Diocese of Rockville Centre became the single largest donor, providing several hundred thousand dollars.
The ongoing fight
Though the center is completed and the church and rectory have been fully repaired -- at a cost of another $1.6 million -- the battle is not over. Miraculous Medal still must pay to keep the center operating, and is running a $75,000 annual deficit, Campbell said.
The center, with four paid staff members and 35 volunteers, has an annual operating budget of about $325,000.
Cuts in government programs, including food stamps, have led to an increase of about 50 families a month seeking help, Campbell said.
One evening last week, the parish held an interfaith seder dinner to raise funds to help reduce the deficit. Jews, Muslims and Christians came together to mark Passover and Holy Week.
"The center is everything we wanted, but the poor are still with us and there are more of them," said Richard Koubek, a member of the board of trustees.
"We've been resurrected, but the truth is we are trying to keep our heads above water."