Fresh off defeat in court, the city of Miami is once again pursuing the historic designation of the 70-year-old St. Jude Melkite Catholic Church — a years-long effort the church’s leadership says has grown to the point of “harassment.”
Miami commissioners voted in the summer of 2013 to declare the sanctuary at 1501 Brickell Ave. historic, saying it displayed remarkable Romanesque architecture. They also agreed with their planning department that it was the focal point of a campus that under the previous ownership of the Sisters of Assumption harbored Cuban exiles and some of the thousands of unaccompanied children who fled Fidel Castro’s regime in the early 1960s as part of Operation Pedro Pan.
But the church appealed and the decision was overturned by a panel of Miami-Dade circuit court judges. In their ruling, the judges said the city failed to prove the building’s primary historic value came from something other than its religious use. Pointedly, the judges said the 1978 razing of a girls’ academy building where the church “briefly” provided shelter at their campus to “no more than a few girls” from the Pedro Pan exodus “casts serious doubt as to the historic significance of the remaining property.”
The conclusion of that ruling — upheld in October by the Third District Court of Appeal — was that the city commission must reconsider historic designation under the proper guidelines. This month, Miami’s preservation officer, Megan Cross Schmitt, wrote an updated report explaining why she believes St. Jude remains a prime candidate for designation even when applying the court’s ruling.
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“Though the social, cultural and religious importance of this site has been established as credible, the structure’s clear primary significance is its architectural integrity,” she wrote.
The city’s administration scheduled a Thursday city commission vote. The church is once again protesting.
The continued efforts aimed at intimidating our parish into requesting or accepting historic designation for St. Jude Church appear to have reached the level of harassment
Reverend Nicholas J. Samra, Bishop of Newton and St. Jude Melkite Church
“The continued efforts aimed at intimidating our parish into requesting or accepting historic designation for St. Jude Church appear to have reached the level of harassment,” Reverend Nicholas J. Samra, Bishop of Newton and St. Jude Melkite Church, wrote this month in an open letter to church parishioners.
For Samra, church pastor Rev. Damon Geiger, and many parishioners, worries about the consequences of historic designation center around the cost of restoration and insurance. If declared historic, the sanctuary, designed in 1946 in cruciform shape, will fall under the supervision of the city’s planning department and Historic and Environmental Preservation Board. Alterations, repairs, expansions and demolition would have to be specially sanctioned.
Church leaders say that would hamper their ability to spend money on their core function: religion. They say they have no plans to sell the property despite the rumors that sparked the initial application to declare the church historic.
“Let me reiterate clearly once again: We have no intention of selling St. Jude Church or of destroying the church building, or any other structures on the premises,” Samra wrote on Jan. 12. “We simply ask to be left in peace. Our parish is growing, and we are very happy to be where we are located. We already ‘saved’ the church building from demolition or replacement by commercial buildings by the fact that we bought it.”
Several churches in Miami are protected as historic landmarks. But Amy Boulris, an attorney for the church, said the city has never before designated a church historic against the wishes of the institution’s leadership. She said she remains hopeful that Miami’s administration will drop its pursuit of the issue, or that city commissioners will consider the court’s ruling and use reason.
But Wasim Shomar, one of four church parishioners who applied to declare the church historic, said church leaders haven’t given any guarantees that the property won’t be sold or razed and rebuilt in the future. He said the argument that historic designation is too costly isn’t accurate, since the church would instantly gain millions in “air rights” to sell to developers and use toward upkeep of the sanctuary.
“It’s actually a very logical solution,” he said.
Boulris said Shomar’s attorney plans to request that commissioners push back Thursday’s hearing to a later date, so the issue may not be heard this month. But unless Schmitt or the city administration have a change of heart, Miami-versus-St. Jude appears headed for round two.