Sunday, April 25, 2021
Tom Tracy - Florida Catholic
BIG PINE KEY | Nearly four years after Hurricane Irma ripped through the Florida Keys, the area will soon have a striking new church visible from U.S. 1 and serving as a well-organized faith-life campus and worship space for one parish.
“Hurricane Irma brought devastation to people’s lives and properties here in the Florida Keys but it also brought some blessings. Because of it we will have a new church more beautiful and safer — only God can bring about something good out of something bad,” said Father Jets Medina, parochial administrator of St. Peter the Fisherman Parish.
The church, located some 45-minutes’ drive north of Key West and part of the Archdiocese of Miami, found itself in an unenviable position in 2017: ground zero following Hurricane Irma. The formidable storm surge washed over the Keys church, leaving behind several feet of water and muck.
Adjacent to the parish property, the American Red Cross soon established a tent city as a temporary regional operations center and staff residence for the post-Irma Florida Keys.
The church was rendered unusable and demolished in 2019 to allow for a new structure, built to updated state building codes at a higher elevation; the old rectory was also left uninhabitable and is being rebuilt.
“I was so happy the Lord brought me here to the Keys surrounded by nature and the Key deer (which inhabit the area). That was six weeks before the hurricane. And on the seventh week I was out in the field celebrating Mass (under a tented pavilion),” Father Medina said with a chuckle, recalling how the community was left with no alternative but to gather for services outdoors.
Now, the post-hurricane reconstruction and renovations are on track for May completion, and will include a new master plan that unifies all the parish elements, including the ministries building (the only original structure remaining).
The church is being constructed largely of concrete block with painted stucco and a metal roof. A normal seating capacity of about 250 people can be expanded by about 150 seats more in the parish hall with an extra-large livestreaming TV.
Father Medina estimates St. Peter has about 500 parishioners during summer but triple that number — about 1,500 — during the winter season.
In addition, there will be a lot of symbolism in the new construction: the building’s keystone bases will reference St. Peter as the Rock of the Church; the entry area to the church will have a pediment representing St. Peter’s net; blue stained glass will symbolize the water. Several courtyards will offer space for socialization or meditation gardens.
Juan Calvo, the new church’s chief architect from Oppenheim Architecture in Miami, said his plan was to draw on Christian tradition and imagery in designing a structured, beautiful church but with a casual, maritime-oriented sensibility appropriate to the Keys environment. Likewise, he said, the landscaping, custom artworks and architectural details will convey a native, rough, weathered look familiar to the islands.
“When we looked at the site there was a hierarchy of decisions that were made and we started with the only building that was left on site, which was the ministries building,” Calvo said. “So we created these strong axes which align a new St. Peter statue with the baptismal font, and the altar with the statue of the Virgin Mary and with the rectory.”
The whole property was elevated five feet to match the current hurricane building code in Monroe County. A new food bank space and new parish offices are part of the plan.
Outside the church, a larger-than-life sized bronze statue of St. Peter casting a net — along with a modern electric bell tower — will be among the first features visible from the entrance. A set of nine-foot-high wooden main entrance doors some three inches thick will feature the fisherman’s net pattern, opening to a small chapel on one side for daily Mass and a confessional on the other.
Stained glass windows from the original church, handmade in the Keys, were preserved for this new building. They were temporarily stored in Vero Beach where they were restored and refitted for the new construction.
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.
“You will see a lot of symbolisms throughout, with maritime, nautical themes — a lot of the artwork being done celebrates that as well since we are in the Florida Keys,” Prada said. “It is a relatively simple design, a simple gabled roof surrounded by flat walkways without much decoration or elaboration. We will find God in the details.”
“When we undertook the project, we interviewed many architects and one of the reasons this design was chosen is that this layout is very simple, clean and the solution that tied the entire campus together for parish life, to support and encourage community and ministry,” Prada added.
Not only will Hurricane Irma be remembered in the local folklore and history of this parish, but the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic as well. The pandemic’s complications imposed some temporary slowdowns to Monroe County building projects last year.
“Work never stopped but there were issues dealing with materials, supplies that were hindered because of the virus and certain trades were frozen. But because with God's grace we were able to continue, the job never stopped and we are looking to be finished up as early as May,” Prada said.
Nancy McCrosson, property manager and bookkeeper at the parish, who is credited with helping Father Medina arrange for the temporary pavilion-worship space immediately following the hurricane, is excited about the way things are already shaping up at the campus.
“This is functionality as its best because I lived with the other church and it was a beloved place to worship, but this is function. This is your faith right in front of you; you are seeing it from the street in,” she said. “Father (Medina) will have the best view standing at the altar and looking straight out at St. Peter throwing the net.”
The tent pavilion will remain in place for now as an outdoor activity area as the pandemic stubbornly lingers on another year.
Meanwhile, the staff at St. Peter’s muse that their new church may offer a little friendly competition to the historic Basilica of Mary Star of the Sea Parish in Key West, popular with pilgrims and visitors. The new building will incorporate coral stones and window shutters that can open and close, like those at the basilica.
“Pilgrims and tourists going to the basilica can stop by here as well,” Father Medina said with a smile.