‘Our Community Is in Pain’: Miami Catholics Respond to the Horror of the Champlain Towers Collapse

Many parishioners at St. Joseph’s Church remain missing following the collapse, which has devastated the local Catholic community and the rest of South Florida.

Church members pray for their neighbors during a Mass at St. Joseph Catholic Church on June 27 in Surfside, Florida. Parishioners are among the dead and missing.
Church members pray for their neighbors during a Mass at St. Joseph Catholic Church on June 27 in Surfside, Florida. Parishioners are among the dead and missing. (photo: GIORGIO VIERA / AFP via Getty Images)

MIAMI — When Father Juan Sosa got up early on June 24, he went out for his daily morning walk. The pastor of the St. Joseph parish in Miami Beach left his residence around 6:15am. As soon as he went outside, Father Sosa sensed that something was wrong.

“When I started to walk, I heard sirens and thought that there must have been a car accident. I always walk towards the beach side, but I found that I couldn’t cross the street,” said Father Sosa.

The road had been blocked by police barriers.

Father Sosa finally walked to an area of the beach that was not barred and saw the collapsed building of the 12-story Champlain Towers South in Surfside. He was utterly horrified. The buildings are only two blocks away from his parish.

“There were a number of my parishioners already there on the beach watching. Some were taking pictures of the disaster,” he said. “I immediately thought, ‘I hope that the people I know were not on that side of the building.’ It took me a while to visualize that this was a part of the building that was closest to the pool. I didn’t realize that.”

Many members of the St. Joseph parish community lived there. The collapse has devastated the parish — and the rest of South Florida — deeply.

“Many people in the parish knew the registered parishioners (living there), and some of the friends who were in the building, in the section that fell down. These were people who were close to church, who came to church, who presented their children for first Communion, some for baptism. Some of the senior citizens came to daily Mass,” said Father Sosa.

There were 12 condominiums’ residents that were registered in the St. Joseph parish. Two units had recently been sold. One unit owner was able to escape from the rubble as soon as the collapse happened. 

“The other eight condo-unit families are the ones we are praying for, and anyone else. There were 60 apartments involved in the collapse, and an average of three or four people living in them. There could be between 25 to 30 people missing from the parish,” said Father Sosa.

It is difficult to find exact numbers because some people were traveling, while others rented out their apartments with Airbnb during the summer.

Father Sosa had personally been invited to the homes of families in the building for dinner or just for visits many times.

“It is very impacting to know that they have not been found,” he said.

By 9am that day, the parish began to call all the registered families who lived in the Champlain Tower. 

“We did get a call from one parishioner, who had another home in Miami, and comes back to the tower on the weekends. That couple called me,” said Father Sosa. “I said to them, ‘Thank God, you are safe. But what about the other people we had dinner with?’ They were very sad when they told me, ‘I think they are under the rubble.’”

Three parishioners who have been rescued from under the rubble came to Mass on Sunday and were celebrated by the entire parish. But everybody is still waiting to hear about the fate of the rest of the group.

“One husband was found last night. He had passed away. He was the father of two girls who were very involved in our parish, in the religious-education program. His two girls and wife have still not been found,” said Father Sosa.

 

The Response

The Archdiocese of Miami has organized for priests to go to the family reunification center located near the collapsed building. Priests have been going there in shifts to console and minister to the families who are waiting to see if their loved ones’ bodies will be found or saved from the rubble. 

As it is Day 7 since the Champlain Tower South building collapsed, hope is beginning to fade that anyone else can be found alive — though some people have been known to survive even longer. In Haiti’s massive earthquake in 2010, one man survived 12 days underneath a caved-in building. In 2013, one woman survived for 17 days when a garment factory collapsed on top of her in Bangladesh.

Surfside is a prominently Jewish area of Miami. This part of Miami Beach is one-third Jewish, with a large Orthodox Jewish population. Therefore, priests and rabbis are ministering to families in the same hotel lobby; a unique ecumenical moment in the midst of tragedy. No reporters or photographers have been allowed in there, so that families can grieve in peace. 

“From the first moment of this disaster, there have been different denominations speaking to families. Priests and rabbis have been working together,” said Jackie Carrion, a senior director of community-based services for Catholic Charities in Miami. 

St. Joseph’s parish organized a vigil on Saturday night in response to the collapse.

“The young adults in our parish put it together. They gathered at 9pm and ended up with a procession as close to the site as possible. It involved music, prayers and the exposition of the Blessed Sacrament. We did this to transmit hope. It was very well attended. Even the mayor of Surfside was there for the first hour,” said Father Sosa.

Surside mourns and prays condo collapse
Clockwise from left: The rescue effort is seen from a distance three nights after the collapse; a growing memorial at the site reflects the community’s grief and prayers. | Courtesy of Pierre DiGiorgio


 

‘Our Hearts Are Heavy’

Our Lady of Lourdes Academy, an all-girls Catholic high school in South Miami, was also affected by this tragedy.

“We have five families which were affected in some way,” said Olga Martinez, director of admissions for Our Lady of Lourdes Academy. “In total, there are 10 people who are among the missing.”

Some of these families from Our Lady of Lourdes Academy have grandparents who are trapped inside. Another graduate of the school has a brother inside. Another graduate is missing her parents.

“The tragedy hits really close to home. Our hearts are heavy. People are constantly reaching out to the school in disbelief and in shock,” said Martinez.

The school has decided to organize a live, virtual Rosary on Instagram this Thursday night. By praying the Rosary remotely, people who are related to the school but living far away can participate.

“Each decade will be dedicated to one of the families that is affected, and we will have someone from that family leading that decade,” said Martinez.

Belen Jesuit Preparatory School, a prestigious all-boys middle school and high school, has also been impacted by the collapse. Eleven members of the Belen community are missing.

A Rosary was organized at Belen Jesuit on Monday night to pray for the families who were affected, as well as the rest of those who were unaccounted for.

“Sometime, in the very near future, structural engineers, architects and experts of every kind will report what went dreadfully wrong with the Champlain South Towers on early Thursday morning. There is no doubt the extensive report will give accurate explanations explaining why this building collapsed,” said Jesuit Father Guillermo García-Tuñón, president of Belen, on Monday night to the crowd that had gathered at the school.

He went on to say that the structural answers to what went wrong will not be enough.

“At the end of the day, all the physical inquiry will not provide the kind of healing and peace so many people desperately need and deserve,” he said. “…This is why prayer is so important.”

“That is why we are here tonight. Our community is in pain. Some of our members have suffered great loss and are in the dark about their loved ones. So we gather in prayer for strength and to strengthen others,” he said.

Catholic Charities Miami has been present at ground zero for Champlain Towers since Thursday of last week.

“We have been providing counselling services, rapid rehousing services and emergency food cards. These are gift cards to local grocery stores. We also have some units of housing available to families that need them,” said Carrion.

The two centers operating near Surfside’s “ground zero” since last Thursday serve two different purposes: The family reunification center is where families gather to get official updates and receive spiritual help, and the family assistance center — operated by Miami Dade County and the Red Cross — is where families can go to for assistance and services.

The death toll currently stands at 16, with 147 people unaccounted for. As rescue crews continue to work non-stop to find any sign of life beneath the rubble, the Miami Catholic and Jewish community continues to pray and hope for a miracle.

Candles and a Mary statue are placed on the beach near where search-and-rescue operations continue at the site of the partially collapsed 12-story Champlain Towers South condo building on June 25  in Surfside, Florida. Search-and-rescue efforts continue with crews from across Miami-Dade and Broward counties. Pope Francis offered his prayers to the affected community on June 26.

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