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The parish at ground zero

At least 10 Catholic families remain missing in Surfside condominium collapse

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MIAMI BEACH | It is an understatement to say that the people and staff of St. Joseph Parish will be living the crisis of the Surfside condominium collapse in a most intimate way for some time to come  

The partial collapse of the Champlain Towers South in Surfside is visible from Collins Avenue, which is partially closed to pedestrians, June 25, 2021.

Photographer: TOM TRACY | FC

The partial collapse of the Champlain Towers South in Surfside is visible from Collins Avenue, which is partially closed to pedestrians, June 25, 2021.

Father Juan Sosa, pastor of St. Joseph Church, Miami Beach, the parish nearest to the collapsed condo building in Surfside, speaks to the media June 25, 2021, 2021. In the distance, the remains of the Champlain Towers South South in Surfside can be seen from the church parking lot.

Photographer: TOM TRACY | FC

Father Juan Sosa, pastor of St. Joseph Church, Miami Beach, the parish nearest to the collapsed condo building in Surfside, speaks to the media June 25, 2021, 2021. In the distance, the remains of the Champlain Towers South South in Surfside can be seen from the church parking lot.

No other Christian house of worship is so close to the ground zero of the Champlain Towers South as St. Joseph. The remains tower in the distance and easily can be seen from the church grounds. 

Then there is the human connection: the parish pastor, Father Juan Sosa, has reported that 10 of its registered families remain missing following the collapse and two who were not in the building at the time are safe.

It is possible, Father Sosa said, that other families who lived in Champlain Towers South and who worshipped at St. Joseph informally may be among the missing, since the area is known as a vacation spot full of short-term rentals and international visitors from South American and beyond. 

“Plus there are the many who used to come on weekends from other parts of Miami who have worshipped with us, and so we are very touched by the idea of the whole community being bound together and praying together,” Father Sosa told the media Friday morning, June 25, just before celebrating a morning Mass for the missing, their family and friends. 

“For us it is very important to have something to do at this time to bring hope to those people,” said the priest, who has been pastor here for 11 years and was very familiar with Champlain Towers. 

“I have visited the place many times and I have been to dinner with some of those members that are missing,” Father Sosa said, recalling when he first realized the buildings had collapsed. 

“It was horrendous because I didn't know exactly what part of the building many of those families lived in, but apparently the 10 families were in that part of the building that collapsed, and some of those who are OK lived in the standing building.”

He added that he hopes some of the 12 families unaccounted for were away on vacation at the time of the collapse. 

Over the years, he said he has encountered residents of Champlain Towers while out walking and exercising. The walking paths along the ocean behind Champlain Towers and other buildings in the area are highly utilized for morning and evening hikes. 

“It is like a community formed out of the need to exercise, and some of the people would stop me and ask for a blessing,” he said. 

Father Sosa visited the family reunification center at the nearby Surfside Community Center twice on the day following the catastrophe, and he had an opportunity to counsel with some of the Catholic families there. 

He has also opened his parish parking lot for the visiting search and rescue and volunteer teams who continue working on the site. From Kendall, St. Agatha’s homeless ministry arrived at the parish Saturday morning with water and other supplies for the search and rescue teams and their dogs. 

Wind, rain and fires at the demolition site have hampered search and rescue efforts. As of Sunday afternoon, June 27, the missing persons list stands at 156 and confirmed fatalities stand at nine. Some of the surviving families have told the media that this crisis won't be over for them until they receive word of their loved one’s status. 

“I am an optimist but sad about this horrible situation. It reminds me of Sept. 11, 2001, but I want to keep hope alive that they will rescue more like they rescued that boy we saw on television,” Father Sosa said. 

His message to those affected by the crisis is to keep up hope and “keep your heart on the one who can grant us the opportunity to see our loved ones, and that is God. Keep your hearts open so you will be able to feel and experience, in the midst of grief, the healing presence of the Lord,” Father Sosa said. 

“May we continue to work together to help the needy and support our rescue teams and searchers as well as the many at the Surfside center and other places who are relating to each other in ways they didn't relate before. Now, somehow, we are all together trying to alleviate the situation and pain caused by this,” he added.

Fire rescue and search specialists at work June 25, 2021 near the partially collapsed Champlain Towers South in Surfside the day after the tragic event.

Photographer: TOM TRACY | FC

Fire rescue and search specialists at work June 25, 2021 near the partially collapsed Champlain Towers South in Surfside the day after the tragic event.


Comments from readers

bill hein - 06/29/2021 09:51 PM
i attended St Joseph school and graduated in 1969. then my mother was the first grade teacher there for 18 years. i knew immediately that St. Joe's was just 2 blocks away and wondered if any parishioners were impacted. prayers for them all. and as a retired first responder (MDPD) i pray for the rescuers as well, they need help from above too. God Bless.

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