St. Jude Church's Historic Preservation Could Be Worth Millions to Brickell Developers
Tomorrow afternoon, Miami commissioners will vote whether to declare historic a 66-year-old church surrounded by skyscrapers in Brickell. For the past year, a small group of parishioners has drummed up support for officially protecting St. Jude Melkite Catholic Church. At first, the petition sounded like something you'd be asked to sign outside Whole Foods: an idea so safe even the most cynical Miamian would support it. Besides, what kind of a monster wouldn't want to save a tiny old church?
But the battle over whether to protect St. Jude's is far from simple. Church leaders oppose the idea, saying historical designation will cost them money and violate the separation of church and state. They also accuse those behind the preservation plan of lying about the church's history and secretly maneuvering to make millions off of the building's air rights.
"Our opponents are now on Radio Mambí trashing our bishop and our church," says Rev. Damon Geiger, the pastor at St. Jude. "Why? With all the dirtiness and vehemence, there is something more than just the historical designation."
The preservation battle has pitted a small group of current and former parishioners against church leaders and the majority of the congregation.
The split seems to have formed about a year ago, when powerful brothers Shadi and Wasim Shomar founded a nonprofit called the St. Jude Middle Eastern Catholic Church Inc. and began talking about historic designation.
Wasim Shomar says the company was just a way of raising money for church repairs, but Reverend Geiger says it was a slap in the face for church leaders.
Shomar says the nonprofit was shuttered when the bishop's opposition became clear.
But in the 11 months since, the once-internal debate has exploded in public. In October, the Miami Herald published a short letter to the editor titled "Save Historic Church."
"Another architecturally magnificent and historical building is on the verge of landing in developers' hands," wrote Maria Elena Lopez. "It seems the Archdiocese of Miami is planning to sell St. Jude Catholic Church on Brickell Avenue because it needs the money."
Geiger says the letter, and countless other complaints like it in newspapers and on local radio, are fundamentally mistaken. First of all, the Archdiocese does not control St. Jude. Second, the man who does -- Bishop Nicholas J. Samra, the head of the Melkite Eparchy Church in the U.S. -- has said there are no plans to sell the church.
stjudemiami.org Reverend Geiger during a mass.
The issue nonetheless exploded into flames in February, when Wasim Shomar, his brother Shadi Shomar, and several others brought their petition before Miami's historic preservation board. They claimed that in 1959, the church -- then the Academy of the Assumption -- had played an important role in Operation Pedro Pan.
Under Florida law, outside groups can still apply for a building to be designated as historic despite the objections of the property owners. (See Real Housewives of Miami star Lisa Hochstein's attempts to destroy her own house.)
"At some point, a group of us parishioners thought that this is a good time for us to move ahead and go through the process of asking for the church to become a historical site," Wasim Shomar says. He met his wife at St. Jude, married her there, and baptized his two sons there. "I care about it deeply." (Geiger says Shomar is not a parishioner. Shomar admits he has not attended St. Jude much lately.)
But when the motion came up for a vote April 11, only four of six board members present approved the historic designation. The vote fell one short.
The victory for Geiger and St. Jude was short-lived, however. The Shomars appealed. Tomorrow, the full city commission will vote whether to overrule the board -- and the 1,300 St. Jude parishioners who have signed a petition against the idea -- and grant historical status.