St. Jude Melkite Greek Catholic Church, a 66-year-old house of worship in Brickell, won’t be declared historic anytime soon.
City staffers said the church is historic, and out of the six members of the Historical and Environmental Preservation Board who showed up for a vote Monday, four voted for historic status.
But Assistant City Attorney Rafael Suarez-Rivas said five of the board’s 10 members would have to have voted for historic status for the motion to pass.
The outcome pleased church leaders, who opposed historic status. Juan Muniz, an attorney representing the church, told officials Monday that the historic designation would be a mistake, because it would increase the church’s operating expenses, reduce the property’s value and infringe on the church’s constitutional and religious rights.
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A small group of church members had applied for the historic designation.
Souraya Dolly Faas, a promoter of the historic designation, said she doesn’t understand why the church’s leadership would not want to protect the church. She and about five others who want the historic designation stood in front of City Hall plotting their next move.
“The designation would not prevent the property owner from adding or even demolishing the church. It just creates another level of review,” Faas said.
The Rt. Rev. Damon Geiger, the church’s pastor, said the efforts to declare the church historic stemmed from a rumor last year that there was a secret plan to sell the Brickell property, which is surrounded by high-rise condos and hotels.
“The bishop did not have, does not have, nor will he have, plans to sell the parish,” Geiger said. “Even if he wanted to sell the church – which he does not – he could not do so without the permission from Rome. There is no reason for the Bishop to close this parish. St. Jude does not need to be saved.”
City staff architect Marina Novaes told the board that St. Jude “derives its primary importance from its architectural, artistic and historical significance as it relates to the historic heritage of Miami ... it possesses integrity of setting, feeling, design, association, materials and location.”
Novaes also said that St. Jude was an important part of Miami history, because the nuns who once lived in the adjacent buildings and prayed in the church had helped Cuban exiles.
“Sisters of the Assumption actively participated in ‘Operation Peter Pan,’” Novaes said. “They were engaged in helping the Carmelite Sisters who had been expelled from Cuba upon the Cuba Revolution, which was an event historically important to the city.”
Board members John Graboski, an architect, and David Freedman, a lawyer, voted against historic status.
“I was very moved by its connection to Pedro Pan … but this board should not be determining the needs of the church,” Freedman said.
When it was clear that the board had ruled in the church’s favor, two dozen St. Jude parishioners wearing green ribbons to show their support of the church leaders clapped loudly. Some hugged and some went to a nearby restaurant to celebrate after the meeting.
Supporters of historic status said they are considering an appeal to the Miami City Commission.
Wasim J. Shomar, who used to attend services at St. Jude, said the church would benefit from the historic designation.
“We believe is important for the entire community to have St. Jude as a historic site,” said Shomar, of Coral Gables. “Becoming a historic site would actually allow us to sell the air rights for a substantial amount of money.”
As the chairman of Lynx Equity Group in Coral Gables, he has experience in real estate investments.
Transfer of Development Rights, Shomar said, is something the church leaders should look into. The new government program allows a property owner to sell air rights known as “unused development rights.” The density is then transferred to another property.
In Miami, a property is eligible for the TDR program if it is listed in the national register of historic places or if it is within a local historic district. Miami’s first TDR transfer happened in 2011 and it involved properties in the Mimo historic district.
Geiger said the church was not interested in selling the property’s development rights.
The church has spent at least $30,000 to oppose the designation. Bishop Nicholas J. Samra, who leads the Melkite Eparchy church throughout the United States, has warned the small group of Catholics who are pushing for the church to get historical designation.
“Anyone who attempts to disturb the peace of a parish or who incites hatred or ill feelings toward the lawful hierarchy of the Church places themselves in great spiritual jeopardy,” Samra said in a letter to the parishioners and friends of St. Jude.
Faas said “his threats” don’t scare her or the others. The applicants have 15 days to appeal to the Miami City Commission.
“We will do everything we can to get St. Jude the historic designation it deserves,” Faas said.