After listening to more than six hours of passionate pleas from feuding parishioners, preservationists, architects, school graduates and Operation Pedro Pan alumni, the Miami City Commission unanimously approved the historic designation of St. Jude Melkite Catholic Church off Brickell Avenue.
The 4-0 vote, with Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones absent, came at 2:38 a.m. Friday.
The decision means changes or renovations to the exterior of the 66-year-old church will have to be approved by the city’s preservation board.
“I believe that St. Jude was with us tonight as was Our Lady of the Assumption,” said Souraya Faas, one of the leaders behind the historic designation effort.
Others, however, took a decidedly different point of view, including the church pastor, the Rt. Rev. Damon Geiger. He and others are concerned the church, surrounded by Brickell high-rises, will not be able to expand and will face financial hardship as a result of the historic designation.
Declared parishioner Andrea Monzani: “The only thing we need to save St. Jude from is imposed designation.”
Opponents of the designation said Friday they likely would appeal the commission’s decision.
Scores of supporters for each side showed up Thursday to give their testimony, some as early as 9:30 in the morning, only to be told by Commission Chairman Marc Sarnoff they would have to wait until at least 7 p.m.
The item came up before the commission at 8:04 p.m. Thursday and did not conclude until after the 2:38 a.m. vote on Friday.
Parishioners opposed to the designation wore green ribbons with pins that depicted St. Jude, while the pro-designation crowd wore green and white shirts that stated, “Vote Yes on Historical Designation” and showed an image of the poured-concrete and Indiana limestone church, located at 126 SE 15th Rd.
The dispute arose last August, when a small group of parishioners from the church, aligned with prominent preservationists, started pushing for historic designation. In April, the city’s preservation voted 4-2 in favor of historic designation, but that was one vote short of what was needed from the 10-member board.
That decision was appealed, leading to the commission’s approval early Friday morning.
The months-long dispute over the chapel has been contentious, with aspersions cast in both directions alleging that one side or the other has misled the public and parishioners.
The Bishop of the Eparchy of Newton — in essence, the U.S. head of the church — wrote a letter to parishioners in September. After referencing “a small group of misguided persons” who have been “spreading false and malicious rumors concerning the future of St. Jude parish” and emphasizing that there were no plans to sell the church, Bishop Nicholas Samra issued a stark warning to parishioners stating, “anyone who attempts to disturb the peace of a parish or incites hatred or ill feelings toward the lawful hierarchy of the church places themselves in great spiritual jeopardy.”
On Thursday, the city’s historic preservation staff recommended the historic designation. The staff report stated the previous owners of the church, the Sisters of the Assumption, “actively participated in” Operation Pedro Pan, a project that brought unaccompanied Cuban children to Miami in the 1960s after Fidel Castro came to power.
In addition, the Sisters of the Assumption were engaged in helping Carmelite Sisters after they had been expelled from Cuba during the revolution. Two sisters of the Assumption wrote a letter to the Commission on July 17 that said Mother Teresa had visited the church several times and the late Bishop Agustin Román’s stay with the sisters after his exile coincided with one of her visits.
Alumni of the Sisters of the Assumption Academy, along with a group of representatives from Operation Pedro Pan, showed up to voice their support for the historic designation. It also received endorsements from local historians Arva Moore Parks and Paul George, as well as historic preservation architect Richard Heisenbottle. Dade Heritage Trust also supported the designation.
Church leaders and their consultants, however, said the report was flawed and exaggerated the role of the church in Operation Pedro Pan.
Ellen Uguccioni, a former historic preservation officer for Coral Gables and who serves on the Florida National Register Review Board, was hired by the church to evaluate the designation. She said the church’s involvement with Operation Pedro Pan was “absolutely minimal.” She pointed out that the school for the Academy of the Assumption no longer exists, and that part of the property was sold to a developer who built condominiums on it.
According to the staff report, few children actually stayed at the school run by the Sisters of the Assumption and only for a brief period of time. The church did feed Pedro Pan children who lived across the street, however, and designation supporters said that many attended Mass at the chapel.
The architectural significance of the building also was debated. While the city’s staff report called the chapel “a unique example of Romanesque architecture in Miami,” the church’s historic-preservation consultant, retired University of Illinois architecture professor John Garner, gave a detailed breakdown of why he thought the architectural significance of the building had been overstated, and why he thought the architect who designed the church, Henry D. Dagit Jr., was not particularly prominent.
Pastor Geiger said the primary significance of the church was religious, as “a house of God for worship and religious ritual,” and not architectural or historical.
He was also worried the church might face financial hardship because of the designation, and wanted the ability to make alterations to or expand the church without having to go through an approval process by the city’s preservation board.
Also discussed was that once the church is designated historic, the church can then sell the unused development rights, or air rights, to a developer who can transfer the density to another piece a land with the same zoning. Sarnoff estimated the value of the church’s development rights at $6 million to $8 million.
At one point, prominent attorney and real estate developer Chris Korge wondered aloud why the bishop had not offered a restrictive covenant as a compromise. This idea led Commissioner Francis Suarez to offer having both sides go back and try to work out such a deal. To which Korge replied: “That train has left the station.”
Perhaps one of the most impassioned pleas against designation came from Jonathan Pratt-Perez.
Perez began with a quote from Chapter 6 of Matthew that directed the faithful to lay treasure up not on earth, but in heaven, “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.’’
He said he had been a drug addict and an atheist but Geiger, the church pastor, has been a second father to him.
“The Nuns of the Assumption, the people who helped in Pedro Pan, they lived and died for the faith, not for the building. If they knew that one day the building would have to go to make room for more parishioners for the sake of their spiritual health, it’s almost inconceivable for me to think they would place more care on the physical stones than on the need for that parish to expand.’’