Power to the Parish

Father Jose Luis Menendez of Wynwood takes the church to the people and the people to the streets

When Menendez decided in 1990 that he could attract more parishioners to church by establishing missions in different neighborhoods, his idea was met with skepticism. The archdiocese was interested but considered the missions an experiment that would have to pass the test of modern-day inner-city conditions.

The strong-willed Menendez mapped out four areas, each of which would be served by its own mission. In a largely Dominican section of Allapattah, he envisioned the Misi centsn Nuestra Senora de la Altagracia; in Edgewater, San Francisco y Santa Clara de Asis. La Milagrosa would serve south Allapattah's Cuban majority. Honoring Wynwood's Puerto Rican heritage would be San Juan Bautista, named for the nation's patron saint. In each neighborhood, Menendez designated one of his own associate priests to oversee mission activities, and church workers went door to door to assemble the faithful and estranged. Until official quarters were established, the incipient mission congregations would gather in borrowed or rented meeting places.

San Juan Bautista is the first -- and so far the only -- mission to have been built. A wealthy developer, who doesn't want his name publicized, bought a site on NW Second Avenue and began construction on the main building, which includes an apartment for a caretaker and an office for clergy; Menendez hopes the mission eventually will house a social services office and a small clinic accessible to neighborhood residents.

The Very Rev. Gerard T. LaCerra, vicar general of the Archdiocese of Miami, characterizes Menendez as "one of the driving forces within PACT. [The concept of missions is] a very different approach, at least for our area," says LaCerra, who served as PACT's founding president, "and it has proved very successful in giving people who ordinarily would not be part of the life of the parish -- because of distance or other factors -- a sense of ownership and partnership."

But after initial construction of the mission in late 1992 and early 1993, thousands of dollars worth of work remained to be done, with little money available. "I came home and said to my wife, 'This guy's crazy to do this,'" recalls Ram centsn Ramos, who owns the Lemon City Market in Little Haiti and has attended Corpus Christi Church for the past few years. "What happened two months later was I said, 'Why not make a festival to raise money?'"

Last June Ramos booked singer Ruth Hernandez and the Andy Montanez orchestra from his native Puerto Rico, organized rides and raffles, and staged a carnival on the church grounds that raised about $18,000 to continue construction.

It was enough money to buy glass blocks to fill in tall windows that had been open to the elements and to pay for finishing interior and exterior walls. (Another $75,000 is needed to complete the building.) The mission as visualized by Menendez harks back to Old San Juan via the New Testament. Twelve wooden columns, symbolizing the twelve apostles, support a partial roof over the entrance courtyard. A central octagonal fountain, to be finished in blood-red marble, represents Menendez's numerical interpretation of the resurrection. And although Menendez has not yet hired an artist to execute all this, he has decided that a mosaic depicting Evil will be inlaid on the ground at the entrance, so that all who enter the mission must step on it.

Inside, under the bare bones of a ceiling, is one of the oldest wooden pulpits in Miami and a stained-glass window of St. John the Baptist that dates back to 1875. Both were found by Menendez, an antiques aficionado who scours shops, bazaars, and markets for church furnishings whenever he travels. When the San Juan mission is more complete and secure, Menendez says, he will bring in a 150-year-old statue of Our Lady of Divine Providence from Spain; parishioners are making contributions little by little to the $2500 cost of the precious artwork with donations and proceeds from food sales. (Weekly donations from Sunday worshippers at the "mother church" and the four missions total about $3000, not enough to meet weekly operating expenses of more than $5000, according to Menendez. That means an annual deficit of more than $100,000, which must be offset by proceeds from the parish's fall festival and other fundraising activities by the Friends of Corpus Christi, a philanthropic group. The parish receives no funding from the Archdiocese of Miami, which does allot a $110,000 annual subsidy for the Corpus Christi school.)

"People need symbols," Menendez says of his elaborate dream for the missions. "We are not poor spirits; we are flesh and bones."

Perhaps it was the deep need to use symbols to augment such basics as homes, jobs, and security that prompted the unusual appellation for Father Menendez's newest venture, the Rafael Hernandez Housing and Economic Development Corporation. Like dozens of its kind formed in blighted communities across the nation, the corporation's mandate is to seek public funding for projects that contribute to the economic development of the area. It is probably safe to assume, however, that no other such agency is named for a Puerto Rican composer of popular music. Still, any Puerto Rican knows the work of Rafael Hernandez Marin, spanning the first half of the century, and his classic song "Ahora seremos felices," which contains the emblematic lyric, "Yo tengo ya la casita que tanto te prometi/Rodeada de margaritas, para ti, para mi." "Now I've got the little house I promised you so much/Surrounded by daisies, for you and for me."

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