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Parishioners want church declared historic; bishop objects

Members of a 66-year-old church in Brickell want their house of worship declared historic to prevent a tower, hotel or condo like the ones that surround it from replacing it.

But the church hierarchy is opposing historic designation, saying that it has no plans to sell to a developer but doesn’t want government interference in a future expansion. Miami’s Historic and Environmental Preservation Board agreed to consider the members request after an emotional meeting at City Hall on Tuesday.

Saint Jude Melkite Greek Catholic Church, on the corner of Brickell Avenue and 15th Road, has survived hurricanes and building booms since it was built in 1946, as a chapel for a Roman Catholic boarding school for girls. In the 1960s, the school’s nuns took care of several Cuban girls during Operation Pedro Pan, an exodus that the Catholic church helped to coordinate. In the 1970s, the property was divided and the school was sold to make way for the Palace Condominium. The chapel became a Melkite Catholic church in 1978.

Dozens of church members asked the historic board to preserve their church. The issue was emotional, because “the church is full of priceless memories of weddings and baptisms,” church member Souraya Dolly Faas said. Celebrities such as Madonna, baseball player Mike Piazza, and former Gov. Jeb Bush’s son, John Ellis Bush Jr., have been married or held baptisms in the sanctuary.

“This church means a lot to a lot of people,” Faas said. “It needs to be protected.”

But Eparchial Bishop Nicholas Samra called the parishioners seeking historic status “dissidents” and “rebels.” He said they were motivated by “an outright blatant lie” — that the church hierarchy was planning to sell the land to developers who would then demolish the building

“As bishop, I have never said that we are selling the property,” Samra said. “And we have no intention of selling.”

The main area of discord focused on defining the “primary significance” of the church to the community — a factor the board will have to consider. The church’s attorney, Juan Muñiz, said the significance is that it is a place of worship. The parishioners’ attorney, Gilberto Pastoriza, said that the church was one of Miami’s “architectural historic gems.”

Muñiz said a historic designation would violate the First Amendment right to free exercise of religion. St. Jude’s Rev. Damon Geiger said this is because they believe that the historic designation will come with complications.

“Our parish membership is rapidly expanding. Our largest Sunday divine liturgy at 6 o’clock in the evening on Sundays is in Spanish, and it’s already overflowing the capacity of our church to contain it,” Geiger said. “We must have the freedom to expand the church buildings for our needs.”

If the city grants the historical designation, the church’s development rights would not be hindered, said historian Timothy Barber, a member of the preservation board. The board has approved similar “necessary expansions” at the Freedom Tower in downtown and the Lyric Theater in Overtown.

“A misconception about the historic preservation is that you can’t do any work on the site after the designation. That is not true,” Barber said. “You are able to build an addition to the historic building based on the needs of the facility. The board has to approve the plan.”

Bishop Samra asked officials to not take up the case, and to give him more time to look into other options, such as applying to sell development rights. Landowners have the ability to sever different rights from the property and sell them separately.

Attorney Lucia Dougherty, of Greenberg Traurig, said that a transfer of development rights would be an ideal solution. The planning program, she said, “allows property owners in historically or environmentally sensitive areas to sell the development rights.” This would assure parishioners that the property would not be developed and the church would benefit financially from the sale of the development rights, Dougherty said.

Since the landowner’s approval is not required for the historic designation, the board voted unanimously to take the case. Now they have to decide whether the church meets the standards for historic designation. They will discuss the issue in March.