Friday, November 9, 2018
Priscilla A. Greear - Florida Catholic
Photography: MARLENE QUARONI | FC
MIAMI | Ten years ago, the north end of St. Catherine of Siena Church ignited in flames from arson, leaving the congregation in shambles of soot, ash and bewilderment. A decade later, St. Catherine is celebrating its reconstruction and spiritual renewal, its steadfast 50-year history in West Kendall, and its broadening cultural palette, from Nicaraguan to Brazilian.
Archbishop Thomas Wenski celebrated the 50th jubilee Mass in English, Spanish and Portuguese Oct. 19, with former pastors Father Juan Sosa and Father Alejandro Rodriguez Artola concelebrating along with current pastor Father Rolando Cabrera.
The archbishop commended the church for its restoration from the fire that caused over $1.2 million in damage.
“Who doesn’t remember the years following the fire when half of the parishioners followed Mass in the open air with no air conditioning? Thanks to God, you have overcome this and other challenges throughout these 50 years. And today we affirm that there’s a brilliant future ahead,” he said. “In the coming years, may this community of believers continue bearing witness of faith, hope and charity to all the residents of this Kendall area.”
Father Cabrera thanked the founders and all community members, benefactors and supporters for 50 years of fire-proof loyalty, including the Brazilian congregants and those of Indian heritage who celebrate a Syro-Malabar Eastern rite Mass.
Among the founding members in attendance was Lou Huertas, a New York native who joined St. Catherine in 1968.
“The biggest change is one of language differences. We’re getting more of the people from South America, Central America and Mexico and then we’re also getting Indians who came from the islands, Filipino population, and we’re getting a lot more Brazilians. We have very intense different ethnic backgrounds from different cultures,” Huertas said. “Now the attempt is to get them together.”
He cited the golden anniversary Mass as an example “because we had people from every culture participating in that party. Like I was telling my sons it was probably the best party we’ve ever had on church grounds.”
FIRST IN KENDALL
The church, at 9200 S.W. 107th Avenue, was established in 1968 with “white collar, American families” according to a church history that notes it was the first parish in Kendall. Led by Father Cyril Hudak, early parishioners met at Killian High School until the church was dedicated in 1974. In 1986, Father James Quinn became pastor as the parish focused on evangelization and the Hispanic community steadily grew. Father Sosa became pastor in 1992 and by 1998 the parish had 3,800 families. Along the way, St. Catherine birthed other Kendall churches: Good Shepherd, Our Lady of Lourdes and St. John Neumann.
After the devastating March 2008 fire, Mass was celebrated in the parish hall with two thirds of the congregation overflowing into the plaza. But as it celebrated its 40th anniversary outdoors the following October, members processed through the parking lot carrying bricks, symbolizing a desire to rebuild, and flowers symbolizing rebirth.
In 2010, Father Rodriguez Artola became administrator, leading both a physical and spiritual restoration. Finally, the rebuilt church was dedicated on the parish feast day, April 29, 2013, as the sun shown through the stained-glass window of St. Catherine.
For Father Rodriguez Artola, now pastor of St. Thomas the Apostle in Miami, it was “pure joy and blessing” to return. He recalled how when he arrived the community was still suffering, and the church building was void of altar and pews, sacred images and life.
“My catchphrase became, ‘Let’s rebuild our community, the walls will follow.’ And that is exactly what happened. We gathered as one family and turned our mourning into dancing. The gift of being able to celebrate for the first time in our newly restored church on Christmas Eve gave a whole new meaning to Advent, expectations and waiting. It also gave a new meaning to the generosity of God’s gift of love to the world.”
Forty-year parishioner Katy Zakas said the fire brought members closer together. It occurred on the Friday before Palm Sunday, and she and others cleaned the devastated church the entire next day so that Easter Masses could be celebrated. The church added a St. John Paul II perpetual adoration chapel during reconstruction, which has spiritually energized the community and empowered her for ministries as a catechist, lector coordinator, extraordinary Eucharistic minister and altar server.
“It’s wonderful. I’ve taken people into that chapel who are not Catholic. A Jewish friend said it was amazing and she could feel the presence of God,” Zakas said. “It’s very quiet. There’s just an immense feeling of being close to God and Jesus. It’s amazing,” she added, comparing it to therapy. “I go once a week and pray for an hour, I pray for everybody.”
Today, the vibrant suburban parish celebrates three weekend Masses in English, three in Spanish and one in Portuguese. Huertas, 79, recalled how many parishioners left after the fire but gradually newcomers began arriving.
“I think we have a good number of people who are new that are here and some of the old people have returned,” he said, noting that the newcomers tend to be Brazilian or Nicaraguan. “The Cuban base was here in the first place but that doesn’t seem to have increased very much. But we have every background possible.”
Among Huertas’ ministries, he has worked to get men of diverse backgrounds to participate more in church activities and was heartened by the sense of unity at the anniversary Mass.
“I think we’ve had some success in getting the different ethnic groups involved. You can tell by the amount of hugs I got from the Brazilian community alone,” Huertas said. He predicted that, years from now, as the different ethnic groups blend, “we’ll become less different, we’ll have more in common and we’ll work together as a big social and religious organization rather than a bunch of little groups.”
He noted that any kind of change always bring some irritations but “if you’re able to recover from the changes I think it becomes a better church,” he said. “This way we have a church that really constitutes Miami.”
As Father Rodriguez Artola concelebrated the anniversary Mass, he said he experienced anew that wellspring of renewal. “We worked on our hearts and our souls and on building a stronger community and that was reflected in the beauty of that church building. For now, the church community is beauty, God’s beauty.”
Corrections: The original version of this story contained several errors which have now been corrected:
- The woman pictured taking up the offertory with founding parishioner Lou Huertas is not his wife. She is Eileen Cahill, a parishioner since 1975.
- The names of two of the women who proclaimed the readings were misspelled: They were Katy (not Katie) Zakas and Eleonora Poletti (not Boletti).
- The parish is located at 9200 (not 9300) S.W. 107 Avenue.
- We apologize for these errors.