Forced once again to resolve a dispute within a house of God divided against itself, the Miami City Commission agreed for a second time late Thursday night to declare the St. Jude Melkite Catholic Church in Brickell a historic landmark.
Commissioners voted 4 to 1 just before 11 p.m. to preserve the limestone-veneer sanctuary at 1501 Brickell Ave., with Chairman Keon Hardemon dissenting. The vote -- forced when the courts overturned a previous city commission decision -- came after hours of conflicting expert testimony and pointed protests from church leaders who said the city was restricting their freedom of religion.
“Please leave us in peace,” St. Jude pastor Damon Geiger pleaded.
Should the commission’s decision stand, the exterior of the 1946 church would be protected by the city, and any alterations, repairs or plans to demolish the cruciform-shaped building would have to be specially approved by a Miami board of architects and preservationists. But there is already speculation that the church will again appeal the decision to the courts, just as the institution did in 2013 when the commission first voted to preserve the sanctuary.
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I truly believe this will go to court again
Commissioner Frank Carollo
“I truly believe this will go to court again and will be appealed, so I'm going to limit my comments,” Commissioner Frank Carollo said before voting.
The controversial battle over the quaint Romanesque church first built as an academy for the Sisters of Our Lady of the Assumption has raged for years, going back to when “rumors” began to spread that church leaders were looking to sell the building to a developer. A group of parishioners petitioned the city to save the structure, exposing a power struggle over the fate of the institution and thrusting the city into the middle of a testy dispute with both historical and constitutional implications.
Commissioners voted in 2013 to preserve the sanctuary, but the Melkite church appealed and won when the Third District Court of Appeal in October upheld a lower court ruling that the city had failed to apply the appropriate standards under Miami law when designating the church historic. The courts ordered the city to reconsider the issue based specifically on whether the church was more significant as a historic landmark than as a religious institution.
Preservation Officer Megan Cross Schmitt complied and came to the same conclusion, although she acknowledged Thursday that it was “uncomfortable” to argue that a church was more important architecturally than religiously. Some church members and leaders found the premise insulting.
If God is being worshipped, there is nothing greater than that
Rev. Damon Geiger
“If God is being worshipped, there is nothing greater than that,” said Geiger.
Geiger accused the petitioning parishioners, some of whom have real estate interests, of being more interested in preserving the surrounding condo views than the sanctuary. He testified Thursday that by declaring the sanctuary historic, Miami would be restricting the church’s religious freedoms and forcing the church to operate within a building where some iconography and architecture still conflicts with the Melkite church, which purchased the sanctuary in the late 1970s.
Geiger said the church saved the sanctuary then from being sold to condo developers and has taken great lengths to preserve the building. But the petitioners accused the church of destroying or hiding important artifacts, such as a hanging crucifix, and of allowing the building to fall into disrepair.
That church is falling apart in front of our own eyes
Andrew Korge, former St. Jude parishioner
“That church is falling apart in front of our own eyes. There's cracks in the limestone. There's water intrusion all over the building,” said former parishioner Andrew Korge. “I swore I would never set foot in that church again. It makes me sick to my stomach.”
Other local preservationists, like Arva Moore Parks, said the church remains among the most important mid-century buildings in Miami, particularly in a high-rise corridor like Brickell.
Commissioners sided with preservationists after more than five hours of debate. Commissioner Francis Suarez noted that previous homes occupied by the church wouldn’t be up for historic consideration because they don’t have the history and architectural important of the St. Jude sanctuary. He also said he was dubious that the church had been unable to renovate or alter the church over several decades, noting that they said they’d spent $200,000 on legal bills.
“I mean, really?” he said.
Amy Boulris, an attorney for the church, said her clients were disappointed, but she didn’t know how respond to Thursday night’s vote.