A polarizing decision by the Miami City Commission to designate Brickell’s St. Jude Melkite Catholic Church as historic has been overturned.
In a ruling that was issued Sept. 16 but went largely unknown even by the church’s own attorneys for almost a week, a panel of 11th Circuit Court judges quashed the city’s historic designation of the institution, saying commissioners used faulty reasoning in establishing a basis for their decision.
The commission voted last year to designate the church historic at the urging of a group of parishioners and preservationists. Advocates who petitioned the city to protect the integrity of the Romanesque chapel argued that the 68-year-old church was historic not just because of its architecture, but also because under previous owners it ran an academy that housed and fed children who fled from Cuba in Operation Pedro Pan and harbored Cuban exiles, such as the Carmelite Sisters.
On the other side of the issue, some pastors and parishioners worried that designating the church historic would impose costly restrictions on any future expansions, and potentially lock the Greek, Melkite institution into a structure originally created for worship by Roman Catholics, a denomination with conflicting aesthetic values.
Commissioners ultimately ruled the church historic following a hearing that went late into the night. Church leaders appealed the vote. Their attorneys argued that the commission failed to properly establish that the church’s secular history, and not its religious use, was the primary reason it qualified for historic designation. They also said the city put far too much weight on the historical significance of the church’s former academy, which was housed in a building torn down long ago to make way for condos.
The panel, in an opinion issued by Judge Miguel de la O, agreed.
“The record before us is devoid of any comparative analysis of St. Jude’s religious importance versus its historical and architectural importance,” de la O wrote. “This failure is fatal under the [city’s] Ordinance and compels us to conclude that the City did not follow the essential requirements of the law.”
Attempts to reach church leaders Tuesday morning were unsuccessful. St. Jude attorney Amy Boulris wrote in a statement that the unintended consequences of designating the church historic threatened the institution’s existence.
“The church's resistance to historic designation has been because of its sincere belief that the added regulatory burden of designation would make it more costly to maintain the church facility and would prevent changes to the facilities in order to align them with the Melkite doctrine,” she wrote.
The panel’s ruling, however, isn’t likely the end of the debate, which began two years ago when rumors emerged that the church’s leaders might sell their property. Church leaders denied any such plans.
“I am surprised by the ruling,” Miami City Attorney Victoria Mendez wrote in an email. “The City will be taking an appeal.”