Thursday, November 17, 2022
Rocio Granados - La Voz Catolica
Photography: ROCIO GRANADOS | LVC
MIAMI | The faithful at St. Michael the Archangel, in the Flagami area of Miami, agree that the sense of community and family atmosphere is what has kept them for years in the parish, which is marking its 75th anniversary.
Margarita Fuentes, 83, has been attending St. Michael since moving to the area in 1998. She felt that family atmosphere "from the first day I got here," she said, recalling how, when she missed Mass one Saturday, the lady sitting next to her asked if something was wrong.
"They made you feel like you were at home," said Fuentes, who started out as a lector for the English Mass. When she retired in 2008, the pastor at the time, Father Christopher Marino, asked her to help count the collection. "So little by little they started giving me more responsibilities."
Fuentes now volunteers at the parish three days a week. She has helped during festivals, at the food booths, and she is also in charge of selling religious items on Sundays. "There is a great sense of community here and people help each other. We are always working for the good of others," she said.
Since his arrival from Cuba in 1980, Roberto Gesni has belonged to St. Michael, serving in almost every ministry. He started as a lector, then became an extraordinary minister of Communion, sacristan and catechist. "My wife and I serve in this church with the three 'T's': time, talent and treasure," he said.
"What I have always liked the most is how friendly it is. This is an open parish; it doesn't recognize borders," Gesni noted after the anniversary Mass, celebrated Nov. 6, 2022 by Archbishop Thomas Wenski.
The celebration was postponed until that date because of Hurricane Ian, which caused catastrophic damage in southwest Florida.
"It is a very special blessing to be able to celebrate today the feast day of the patron saint of this beloved parish, under the protection of the Archangel St. Michael," Archbishop Wenski said during his homily.
He shared that as a child in the 1950s, he would travel with his parents two or three times a year from Lake Worth, in West Palm Beach, to the Masses for the Polish community celebrated at St. Michael. Those Masses took place in the original church building, now a center for preschool-age children. "Back then, Masses were celebrated in Latin, but the sermon and hymns were in Polish," the archbishop recalled.
The parish was founded on Sept. 29, 1947, feast day of St. Michael the Archangel. Father Romuald Philbin, a hard-working and optimistic former Army chaplain, established the parish during a difficult post-war period, Archbishop Wenski noted.
The city of Miami was part of the Diocese of St. Augustine then, and had only five parishes, so the faithful of this area — now known as Flagami and part of Little Havana — had to go to Gesu Church in downtown Miami.
The first Mass was celebrated in the auditorium of Miami Senior High School. As attendance increased and there were no funds to build their own church, Father Philbin bought the chapel and the Army military hospital in Central Florida at a modest price. The dismantled structures were moved and rebuilt on the parish grounds. Earlier, the parishioners — men, women and children — together with Father Philbin, had cleared the land, which was covered with bushes and rocks.
Later, Masses were celebrated in the neighboring Dade County Auditorium until the church was dedicated in 1964.
Since its foundation, St. Michael has welcomed nearly all the different communities that settled in Miami, beginning with those that came after World War II — Germans, Lithuanians, Poles and Hispanics, mostly Cubans, who were served by multilingual priests. Today, most of the Masses are in Spanish. In the 1970s, the parish launched a bilingual education program in English and Spanish for immigrants.
In 1978, when Father Jose Paz became pastor at St. Michael — he served there for 30 years — he asked Isabel Simeon to establish a St. Vincent de Paul conference. She had already founded it in Corpus Christi Parish in Wynwood, but it had closed due to the danger caused by rising crime in that area.
Flagami was an area of working people "and there was a real need, a great need, and Father Paz helped us a lot," Simeon recalled.
At that time there were many Cubans and some Puerto Ricans who came from New York to Miami looking for work.
Over the years the community has changed. Now most are Central Americans, but there are also many Venezuelans, Nicaraguans and Cubans who are crossing the country's southern border.
"St. Michael has many levels and every generation that has passed through here has contributed to the enrichment of this parish," said Father Elvis Gonzalez, current pastor. Other pastors were Father Sebastián Loncar, Father Patrick Slevin, Msgr. Xavier Morrás, and Father Gerardo Díaz.
The school opened its doors in 1951, four years after the parish was founded. The first teachers were the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary who arrived from Michigan that year and remained until 1989. They were followed by the Religious Sisters of the Apostolate, who came from Spain.
Today, the principal is Lisette Reina-Naranjo, an alumna of the school who started there at age 6. Her children also studied at St. Michael, from PK3 until graduating in 2010.
"I have beautiful memories of that time. We held festivals and it was something everyone looked forward to," said Reina-Naranjo.
The school currently has 368 students. When she went there were about 800, mostly Cuban and Anglo families, Reina-Naranjo said. Now parents have more options, such as charter schools and public schools. "We are very grateful for the students we have, because their parents are looking for something that they won't receive in a public school," she said.
A combined anniversary gala for the school and the church is being planned for February 2023.
Today the parish has about 2,000 registered families and over 200 children in the religious education program.
The recent coronavirus pandemic that forced the closure of churches around the world “was beneficial for us,” Father González said.
Thanks to the spaciousness of the church, with a capacity for 1,200 people, it was possible to hold events during the pandemic, such as the celebration of the feast of Our Lady of Charity, Sept. 8, 2020, which for the first time was held in a parish. The parish also celebrates the feast of the Immaculate Conception, with the traditional Nicaraguan "Gritería", and la Divina Pastora (Divine Shepherdess) with the Venezuelan community; and it hosted a Mass for the persecuted Church in Nicaragua, with Archbishop Wenski and Managua’s auxiliary bishop in exile, Bishop Silvio Baez, presiding. The parish is also partnering with Radio Paz, the archdiocesan station, to host concerts.
"I am very grateful to this community. It is very much alive and it is a community from which I have learned a lot," Father Gonzalez said. In the future he wants St. Michael "to continue to be the place where people feel welcome, where they feel at home, where so many immigrants passing through here find an oasis where they can refresh themselves and continue on their pilgrimage."