Members of a 66-year-old church in Brickell want their house of worship declared historic to prevent a tower, hotel or condo like the ones that surround it from replacing it.
But the church hierarchy
is opposing historic designation, saying that it has no plans to sell
to a developer but doesn’t want government interference in a future
Miami’s Historic and Environmental Preservation Board agreed
to consider the members request after an emotional meeting at City Hall
Saint Jude Melkite Greek Catholic Church, on the
corner of Brickell Avenue and 15th Road, has survived hurricanes and
building booms since it was built in 1946, as a chapel for a Roman
Catholic boarding school for girls.
In the 1960s, the school’s nuns took
care of several Cuban girls during Operation Pedro Pan, an exodus that
the Catholic church helped to coordinate.
In the 1970s, the property was
divided and the school was sold to make way for the Palace Condominium.
The chapel became a Melkite Catholic church in 1978.
Dozens of church members asked the historic board to preserve
The issue was emotional, because “the church is full of
priceless memories of weddings and baptisms,” church member Souraya
Dolly Faas said. Celebrities such as Madonna, baseball player Mike
Piazza, and former Gov. Jeb Bush’s son, John Ellis Bush Jr., have been
married or held baptisms in the sanctuary.
“This church means a lot to a lot of people,” Faas said. “It needs to be protected.”
Eparchial Bishop Nicholas Samra called the parishioners seeking
historic status “dissidents” and “rebels.”
He said they were motivated
by “an outright blatant lie” — that the church hierarchy was planning to
sell the land to developers who would then demolish the building
“As bishop, I have never said that we are selling the property,” Samra said. “And we have no intention of selling.”
The main area of discord focused on defining the “primary significance”
of the church to the community — a factor the board will have to
The church’s attorney, Juan Muñiz, said the significance is
that it is a place of worship. The parishioners’ attorney, Gilberto
Pastoriza, said that the church was one of Miami’s “architectural
Muñiz said a historic designation would violate
the First Amendment right to free exercise of religion. St. Jude’s Rev.
Damon Geiger said this is because they believe that the historic
designation will come with complications.
“Our parish membership
is rapidly expanding. Our largest Sunday divine liturgy at 6 o’clock in
the evening on Sundays is in Spanish, and it’s already overflowing the
capacity of our church to contain it,” Geiger said. “We must have the
freedom to expand the church buildings for our needs.”
If the city
grants the historical designation, the church’s development rights
would not be hindered, said historian Timothy Barber, a member of the
The board has approved similar “necessary
expansions” at the Freedom Tower in downtown and the Lyric Theater in
“A misconception about the historic preservation is
that you can’t do any work on the site after the designation. That is
not true,” Barber said. “You are able to build an addition to the
historic building based on the needs of the facility. The board has to
approve the plan.”
Bishop Samra asked officials to not take up
the case, and to give him more time to look into other options, such as
applying to sell development rights. Landowners have the ability to
sever different rights from the property and sell them separately.
Lucia Dougherty, of Greenberg Traurig, said that a transfer of
development rights would be an ideal solution. The planning program, she
said, “allows property owners in historically or environmentally
sensitive areas to sell the development rights.”
This would assure
parishioners that the property would not be developed and the church
would benefit financially from the sale of the development rights,
Since the landowner’s approval is not required
for the historic designation, the board voted unanimously to take the
Now they have to decide whether the church meets the standards for
They will discuss the issue in March.