Thursday, September 30, 2021
Tom Tracy - Florida Catholic
Photography: TOM TRACY | FC
BIG PINE KEY | Rich Makowski, a 44-year part-time resident of the Lower Florida Keys, and his wife, Grace, were among the first parishioners of St. Peter the Fisherman to arrive for the dedication Sept. 25, 2021 of the new church, parish hall and priests’ residence.
“I saw the new construction over the past few months but now it is just beautiful — a house of the Lord deserves a home like this,” he said of the new building, which comes four years after Hurricane Irma tore through the region in 2017.
“This is for Him and for all of us. I can read the (architectural) plans but there is nothing like seeing it all done,” the Polish-born Makowski said. “I really like everything, including the landscaping.”
Archbishop Thomas Wenski led the dedication Mass and blessing of the new campus, located about a 45-minute drive north of Key West. Big Pine Key was ground zero for the formidable storm surge associated with Hurricane Irma, a surge that washed over the Keys church, leaving behind several feet of water and muck.
Rendered unusable, the church was demolished in 2019 to allow for a new structure built to updated building codes at a higher elevation. The rectory was also left uninhabitable and is being rebuilt. The ground level was raised five feet to meet Monroe County’s new hurricane building code, and the church was constructed largely of concrete block with painted stucco and a metal roof.
David Prada, senior director of the Building and Properties Office for the Archdiocese of Miami, said the main section of the church, called the nave, is akin to a boat that symbolically carries the faithful heavenward. A new food bank space and new parish offices are part of the new construction.
The church’s normal seating capacity of about 250 people can be expanded by about 150 seats with an extra-large live streaming TV in the parish hall. Much of the religious artwork was salvaged from the old church but new works by Miami artist Natalie Plasencia grace exterior and interior spaces. Her husband, Juan Calvo, from Oppenheim Architecture in Miami, was the new church’s chief architect.
Roberta Castillo, a 33-year resident of Big Pine Key and a parish sacristan, said she will fondly remember the four years that Father Jesus “Jets” Medina, who had been newly appointed administrator, led the faith community in outdoor services under a tent pavilion that served as a temporary church.
“I loved the outdoor years: It was a nice, relaxed and prayerful time,” Castillo said. But, she added, “this is very exciting to finally have a church inside and we don’t have to worry about storms. I am so glad we kept the stained glass from the old church and many things were saved from the old church. The new artwork is awesome — it is amazing what has been captured.”
Between Hurricane Irma and the coronavirus pandemic, however, it is hard to say how many of the old parishioners have returned to the region.
“My property was OK but I was devastated for the people, the community — everybody lost a whole lot (during Irma). A lot of people couldn’t take it and they came back after the hurricane, sold their houses and moved. Then we had the pandemic, so we don’t know how many people are gone,” Castillo said.
In his homily, Archbishop Wenski told the St. Peter the Fisherman congregation to be fishermen themselves, open to those coming south into the region and to be prepared to welcome them — giving them “an account of the hope that is yours because of your faith in Jesus Christ.”
“Here we have this beautiful church with a statue of Peter casting his net, seeking to catch men,” the archbishop said. “While that statue is made of bronze, you are the flesh and blood members of the body of Christ, of this particular community of faith.”
“You have to go beyond your comfort zones and be missionary disciples. Give Father Jets more work to do: more baptisms to celebrate, more confessions to hear, more communions to distribute.
“Make this building stand along the U.S. Highway One like a lighthouse — a lighthouse along a dangerous shoreline. A lighthouse that gives off light to guide the lost and bring them safely to shore,” Archbishop Wenski said.
‘WE HAVE A CHURCH!’
Speaking to the community following the Mass, Father Medina, who was formally installed as pastor the following morning, thanked the archbishop, local leaders, archdiocesan staff and the many parish individuals and staff who in one way or another contributed to the rebuilding of the church campus.
He also thanked other clergy and priests from the Monroe County deanery who, from Key Largo to Key West, traveled to Big Pine Key for the event.
“We have a new church!” Father Medina pronounced to wide applause. “We thank God for giving us a new parish home once again, after four years.”
Whereas many specific features and spaces of the building project were supported by so-called legacy donors who elected to fund specific items, Father Medina said he was designating the parish altar as a legacy feature honoring the memory of the many anonymous donors who contributed to the building project.
The altar contains relics of the bones of St. Peter, he added.
“Thank all of you who helped rebuild our church,” Father Jets said.
Steve Mauriello, 37-year resident of Big Pine Key, who serves as an usher and newly appointed master of ceremonies for the parish, said it is exciting to have a new church after four years of being in a tent/pavilion.
Everybody “toughed through it,” he said, especially the parish staff and volunteers who worked out of the ministry center, which couldn’t accommodate all of them at the same time.
He added that he was looking forward to exploring the new building spaces. “I really haven’t done a walk-thru yet; I haven’t been into the hall nor around to see everything that’s been done.”