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.
"They should have asked before they started this process," Geiger says. "Don't act when the bishop has signified that he is not in favor of it."
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.
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.
According to Geiger, historic designation would cost the church tens of thousands of dollars. Insurance rates would go up three to six times. The land would drop in value, making it more difficult for the church to obtain loans. And repairs would be subjected to a lengthier, more costly process.
More important, Geiger says St. Jude would be the first church in Miami to be historically designated against its wishes. Such a move violates the separation of church and state, he claims. "If we wanted to add a dome on the church, since we're Byzantine, suddenly we couldn't do that anymore," he says.
Since the bishop has dismissed selling St. Jude, Geiger and others within the church suspect their opponents are more interested in selling the building's air rights than "saving" the small chapel.
"St. Jude's Church doesn't need to be saved," Geiger says. He points out that plans for the Echo Brickell -- Miami's tallest residential tower -- were announced the same day the historic preservation board voted on St. Jude.
"They are not zoned for 60 stories," he says of the Echo Brickell. "They are going to need air rights."
Under the Miami 21 zoning code, historically preserved buildings may be granted rights to the unused real estate above them. These "air rights" can then be sold to developers for use on nearby projects.
Shomar, who as chairman of Lynx Equity Group in Coral Gables has experience in real estate, insists he's not involved in the Echo Brickell or any other project that could benefit from St. Jude's air rights.
"I have no [personal] interest in those air rights," he says. "The air rights are an added bonus for our bishop. It's simply an option that he has in case at any point he wanted to create an equity, create an asset. It's completely at his discretion, and we trust his judgment. That's all it is. It's not the motivator for this historic designation."
Kevin Maloney, founder and CEO of Property Markets Group -- the developer building the Echo Brickell -- could not be reached for comment on where he intends to get the air rights to build above the allotted 48 stories.
Shomar's campaign to defy church leaders and have St. Jude's historically preserved seems to be well financed and run. Earlier this month, he established an LLC called Friends of Saint Jude. The group has paid for recent full-page ads in the Miami Herald.
Despite waging what amounts to a church coup, Shomar says he simply wants everyone to get along.
"We trust in the process, we trust the leadership of our commissioners and our mayor," he says. "Regardless of what happens Thursday, whether it becomes historic or not, I think we will all be able to come together and continue to pray together."
Maybe not. In a recent letter to parishioners, Bishop Samra warned dissidents such as Shomar that their disobedience would have otherworldly consequences.
"Anyone who attempts to disturb the peace of a parish or who incites hatred or ill feelings toward the lawful hierarchy of the Church places themselves in great spiritual jeopardy," he wrote.
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