Historic designation opens rift inside Miami church

The Miami HeraldJuly 27, 2013 

MIAMI -- Members of a church sharply divided sat on mostly opposite sides of the Miami City Commission chambers late Thursday night and well into the early morning hours Friday.

Dozens showed up to support the historic designation of St. Jude Melkite Catholic Church.

However, the Rt. Rev. Damon Geiger, the church's priest, and dozens of others spoke passionately against the designation.

The commission approved the designation in a 4-0 vote with Commissioner Michelle Spence Jones absent.

The decision means changes or renovations to the exterior of the church will have to be approved by the city's preservation board.

Scores of supporters for each side showed up during the day 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.

But the vast majority for each side dug in for a long, pitched testimonial battle. St. Jude happens to be the patron saint of desperate causes.

The item finally came up at 8:04 p.m. and did not conclude until more than six hours later, at 2:38 a.m.

The dispute arose in August, when a small group of parishioners and others from around the city started pushing for historic designation. In April, the city's preservation board turned down the designation in a 4-2 vote; one vote short of what was needed for approval on the 10-member board.

That decision was appealed, leading to the commission's approval early Friday morning.

The monthslong 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, for greedy or spiteful purposes.

The Bishop of the Eparchy of Newton wrote a letter to parishioners in September. After referencing "a small group of misguided persons" that 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."

Since then, each side has spent thousands hiring lawyers and teams of historical preservation experts, and dedicated countless hours organizing in preparation for meetings. On Thursday, 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 front of the church.

The city's historic preservation staff recommended approval of 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 addition, the sisters were engaged in helping Carmelite Sisters after they had been expelled from Cuba during the revolution. The report also states the chapel is a unique example of Romanesque architecture in Miami.

Alumni of the Sisters of the Assumption Academy, along with a group of representatives from Operation Pedro Pan Group, showed up to voice their support for historical designation. A group of alumna sang their alma mater before the hearing -- until being shushed and gaveled down.

The designation received endorsements from local historians Arva Moore Parks and Paul George, as well as local historic preservation architect Richard Heisenbottle. It also received support from Dade County Heritage Trust.

However, church leaders and their consultants feel the report was flawed and exaggerates 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. Uguccioni told the Miami Herald on Thursday that the church's involvement with Operation Pedro Pan was "absolutely minimal." She points out that the school for the Academy of the Assumption no longer exists, and that part of the property was sold off 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. However, the church did feed Pedro Pan children who lived across the street, and designation supporters said that many prayed and attended mass at the chapel.

Assumption alumni also expressed their attachment to the chapel, the structure of which was the subject up for designation.

The architectural significance of the building was also a topic of debate. 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 architects who designed the church, Henry D. Dagit Jr., was not particularly prominent.

Supporters from each side appealed to the commission to save their church, in one way or another.

One of the main proponents of historical designation, Souraya Faas, said after the meeting that before she came to the commission she lit a candle at St. Jude.

"I believe that St. Jude was with us tonight as was Our Lady of the Assumption," Faas said.

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