Monday, June 27, 2022
Ana Rodriguez Soto - Florida Catholic newspaper
MIAMI BEACH | Marian Lopez’s “little slice of heaven” collapsed in a heap of white dust and rubble shortly after 1 a.m. June 24, 2021.
Lopez, along with her husband, Alfredo, and son Michael, now 25, escaped wearing their pajamas, shoes and glasses and carrying their cell phones.
“We had nothing when we left,” Lopez said after marking the one-year anniversary of the collapse of Champlain Towers South at a memorial Mass at her parish, St. Joseph.
The church sits less than two blocks away from where Champlain Towers South stood. The building was visible from the church’s parking lot. Immediately after the collapse, and during the three weeks of search and recovery that followed, the church served as a place of prayer and respite for surviving families, grieving relatives of those who perished, first responders and even journalists covering the tragedy.
Lopez called the church “my safe place” and its parishioners “my church family.”
She acknowledged that her family was lucky. They got out alive. But “it doesn’t mean I’m not suffering,” she said. Sure, they only lost property, but “attached to property are emotions and memories.”
The Lopezes lost their home of 23 years. After moving in with her in-laws, they found another place near downtown Miami, but are still looking for a permanent home. All three have been going to therapy.
They also pray as a family every night before dinner, prayers led by their son, who “has a very strong faith,” Lopez said. Michael served at the altar during the memorial Mass.
“The beginning was very difficult,” she recalled, citing spiritual and emotional exhaustion as well as survivor’s guilt.
“I was begging, begging God to strengthen my faith and keep my eyes on him. Without faith, I don’t know how anyone can get through something like this and move forward,” Lopez said.
She credited her husband’s family, her “dearest friends,” and the community agencies who descended on Surfside for helping her family get through the year.
“I was overwhelmed by the amount of generosity and empathy and compassion that people showed me,” she told the Florida Catholic. After a year of pandemic lockdowns, of people feeling isolated and impatient and angry, she added, “It was like, wow! All of a sudden, the love.”
The community’s compassion provided a kind of theme for the memorial Mass, which began with the recital of each victim’s name as relatives, friends or parishioners walked up to light a candle: 98 in all, 49 on each side of the sanctuary, all lit from the paschal candle — symbolizing resurrection — located in the middle. During pauses between names, the choir sang “You’ll never walk alone.”
As he entered the church, St. Joseph’s pastor, Father Juan Sosa, carried a book he had placed next to the paschal candle a year ago; a book where people had written the names of those who were missing, those for whom they were praying. Eventually, the remains of all 98 were recovered.
In his homily, he quoted the words of a family member who had lost a loved one in the collapse: “Our hearts are broken.”
“But for how long?” Father Sosa asked. “Even hearts that are broken can find healing and strength in their faith and in the companionship of those who care.”
Indeed, that’s what the clergy and people of St. Joseph provided to the grieving families of Surfside.
Carla Guerrero can attest to that. She and her husband had owned a condo in Champlain Towers South for 18 years. They went there every weekend. On the Thursday morning when the building fell, they were not present.
But her best friend of 29 years, “my second lung,” Guerrero said, was not as fortunate. Mercedes and Raymond Urgelles had moved into the building to be closer to Carla and her husband, Cesar. Their sons had been friends since third grade. Both had gone on to graduate from Belen Jesuit Prep.
“My [Jesuit] spiritual director has helped me from day one,” Carla Guerrero said. “My community here has helped me a lot. My beliefs have kept me from not being desperate. Thank God I have not touched that desperation.”
She is not sure whether she will buy another condo on the beach, she said. “What I know is I’m not going to leave St. Joseph Church. This community has been amazing to all of us.”
“From that fateful day when all of our hearts were broken, this congregation has stood strong with all of those suffering,” agreed Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava, who was present throughout the Mass. “Everybody here was part of the community that took care of others.”
She echoed the words of Father Sosa in his homily, when he asked, “What lesson, if any, have we learned from Champlain Towers 2021? Are we a more caring person for the world in which we live, for our country, and especially for the people around us?”
The mayor said the biggest lesson, for her, is that “indeed, we are all connected across faiths, across nationalities, across languages, traditions, and in our darkest moments that connection is what really shone so bright.”
Lopez and Guerrero both told the Florida Catholic they don’t ask why the tragedy befell them and their friends.
“We know we’re going to get to a better place, and I know I’m going to see her [Mercedes] one day,” Guerrero said. “God has his plans. We think we have everything under control and it’s not that way.”
“I never stopped believing that God loves me, will take care of me, will provide as he has in this last year,” Lopez said. “God has brought us through everything so far. I know he’s going to bring me through this.”
Both said the memorial Mass on the one-year anniversary was one more step in a long journey toward healing.
Another step for Guerrero: She and her family were traveling to Germany that same weekend for the wedding of her best friend’s son, Daniel Urgelles. He and his sister, Jennifer, a graduate of Our Lady of Lourdes Academy, also took part in the Mass.
“I know [Mercedes] would have loved to be there,” said Guerrero, “but her spirit will be there with us.”