December 26, 2012

New life for a downtown Miami historic church

Prior to Christmas, downtown Miami’s Gesù Church, whose current structure dates to 1922, has been renovated.

To celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, the oldest Catholic Church in Miami — named after him in Italian — has been renovated.

In the last few months, Gesù, the iconic downtown Miami sanctuary, has gone through a transformation to restore the aged bell tower, paint the facade with new colors, revitalize the interiors and add insignia with the emblem of the Society of Jesus, the religious order that leads the parish since the end of the 19th century.

“We have always wanted to revive our presence in the heart of downtown because the area itself has been developed and the Catholic Church was not going to fall behind,” said Father Eddy Alvarez, superior and pastor of the Gesù Catholic Church. “We need to modernize and attract new Catholics who have moved to the area.”

Because the church is so close to the ocean, the salt residue and humidity had taken a toll on the church’s frame with cracks and other forms of deterioration that threatened to put it’s structure in danger, said Father Eduardo Barrios, who lives in the parish’s rectory that once upon a time — when there was an abundance of priestly vocations — housed almost a dozen priests.

So much has changed since then. Today there are only three priests who carry the burden of the work at the parish, which has seen growth and diversification of its parishioner base, particularly with the influx of young professionals to the new condos.

Among this new generation of Catholics is Alberto Carrillo, who moved to the Brickell area with his wife Janel shortly after they married in 2009.

He used the Yelp app on his smart phone to search for a Catholic Church nearby. The first option that jumped on the screen was Gesù — and it had good reviews.

Besides the closeness — most of the parishioners walk the distance from their homes — he was captivated by the sanctuary’s historic character, though he noticed that the outside walls had cracks and the color of its interior murals was fading.

“It now has a fresher look while maintaining its original beauty,” said Carrillo, a real estate broker who is also studying computer networking at Miami Dade College, adjacent to the church. “It’s very inviting if you are Catholic.”

When the original church was built in 1896 on land donated by pioneer Henry Flagler, Catholics were a small minority and Miami was yet to be incorporated as a city. The parish then was called Holy Name of Jesus and its jurisdiction extended from south Palm Beach County to the northern Keys. The diocese that governed the church was more than 300 miles away in St. Augustine.

The original wooden structure, which cost $3,600, was replaced in 1922 by the current Andalusian-Mediterranean style facade. It also got a name change to Gesù, because the founder of the Jesuits, St. Ignatius Loyola, is buried in the Chiesa del Gesù in Rome.

Until very recently, the church in Miami, located at 118 NE Second Street, stood out for its pink color — which is quite non-traditional in Christian architecture. One of the most remarkable changes after the $220,000 restoration is precisely the exterior paint in two tones — ochre and terracotta — which make its baroque interior and the Germanic stained glass windows reflecting the story of Jesus and Mary look a lot better.

“It’s a more sober color that stands out among the new buildings that surround it,” Alvarez said. “In reality, we haven’t been able to find in the city’s records which was the original color.”

To reaffirm the Jesuit identity, the emblem of the religious order has been accentuated throughout the church, an insignia with the acronym IHS, the traditional monogram in Greek of the word Jesus, welded to the bars at doors and windows. It is also painted on the panels containing the Creed along the Stations of the Cross.

The next step, which is yet to be scheduled, is to bring the big bronze bell now at the entrance of the sanctuary to its place at the restored tower above. A gift given by a New Orleans priest in 1897, it was that bell that summoned Miami Catholics for the first time to congregate and pray to God. And to this day it continues to chime at the beginning of every Mass.

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