MONTCLAIR, N.J. (PIX11) – With tears welling up, Carmen Van Atta and Julie Daidone watched the church they love so much go up in flames.

“It was a beautiful, welcoming place,” said Daidone. “Yes, and it welcomed everyone,” added Van Atta.

“It is a building. It is brick, mortar, stone,” said Daidone. “The church is the people. Thank God no people were in the church when this happened. It didn’t happen on a Sunday, it didn’t happen when we had meetings, there was no one here.”

The beautiful masonry and stained glass windows were left charred by flames that broke out at Grace Presbyterian Church just before 8 a.m.

Neighbors, many with tears in their eyes, could only sit and watch in disbelief. Officials said the fire spread quickly from the basement to the first floor, drawing a response from seven engine companies.

Local, state, and federal investigators were on hand to look for clues of the cause of the fire, which is still under investigation. 

“The age, the size of the wood structure, the air that’s inside that big space like that, that does contribute,” said Montclair Fire Chief John Herrmann, “and there are a lot of voids that you are dealing with in types of buildings as this, churches present a lot of different issues. Fires spread rapidly, and members did a terrific job containing everything they could, but that is the nature of church fires.”

“For a moment there, you want to vomit and cry,” said Robin Curras, interim pastor of the church, “but I’m OK.”

Curras said she expects the feeling of sadness to come in waves but is grateful to people in the community who have already asked how they can help.

“Even this morning in all the ways people have reached out and shown care and concern is how God shows up for us,” said Curras, “in the love that we receive.”